06 May 2015

WOW!


04 May 2015

Why the U.S. can't solve its race problem

Is the Unites States a racist society? This is a question the nation wrestles with as one young black man after another is killed by the police. But the question may in a sense be irrelevant. The current turmoil may be due less to lingering racism than to the ignoring of history.

To explain, allow me, as this is Stanley Cup season, to use a hockey analogy. Let us assume we want to play a pick-up game. We manage to round up some friends and, taking care to balance abilities, we create two teams, A and B. A has six players and B five. The game is on. At the end of the first period, Team A is up five goals. How can this be we say, we took such care to balance the teams skills. And then we realize Team A has an extra player. We agree that's not fair, so we find another player for Team B. Now are the teams equal? Many would answer yes, but they would, of course, be wrong. They would be ignoring the five goals.

So to make things fair, someone, probably a socialist, suggests taking away Team A's goals. But then others, possibly conservatives, jump up and say you can't just take away their goals. They worked hard for them, they have earned them. So the socialist says, OK, then let's give Team B five goals. The conservatives jump up again and say you can't just give them goals, they have to work for them, just as Team A did. So you are stuck. And so is Team B. They will be losers as long as the game lasts.
 
And this is exactly the position of blacks in the U.S. The generations of brutal oppression they suffered did not magically disappear when the civil rights movement, with victories in the courts and legislatures, brought them legal equality. Legally, a black American has the same rights as a white American yet, in 2011, the median household income for whites was $67,175, for blacks $39,760. That alone illustrates a huge disadvantage, a disadvantage that will remain until the mistakes of history are corrected.

The only way to make Teams A and B equal is to take away goals from Team A and/or give goals to Team B, i.e. by some form of affirmative action. You have to correct history. And so it is with blacks and whites in the United States. The refusal of Americans to accept full, including material, responsibility for the mistakes of the past is the root cause of the current turmoil. The police may be racist but they are also at the sharp edge of a very unequal society, victims too in a way. Until Americans take up the challenge of that ingrained inequality, the racial problem will persist. Compensating blacks for generations of free labour that went into building the country would be a start.

We, too, have historical errors to correct, specifically with our Native people. High crime rates among young Native men, for example, lead to wasted lives for them and grief and expense for the rest of society. History is long with us. You can ignore it, but it won't ignore you.

03 May 2015

Calgary Chamber of Commerce not afraid of the socialist hordes

Chambers of Commerce are not the greatest fans of social democratic political parties. And the Calgary chamber is not the greatest fan of the Alberta NDP. But neither is it particularly hostile. On the contrary, it had some nice things to say after NDP leader Rachel Notley addressed its members last week in the run-up to the May 5th election.

The chamber did not approve of the NDP's proposal to raise corporate taxes or to review the oil and gas royalty regime. No surprise there. But they did approve of some of its policies, including its recognition of challenges in the agricultural sector, proper funding for the Auditor General's office, and in-province refining and upgrading of oil and gas. The chamber's policy director, Justin Smith, said the meeting was positive and the two sides agreed to disagree on issues such as the corporate tax hike.

Interestingly, some of the things they liked about the Conservative platform would fit comfortably with NDP policies, such as a more progressive income tax, more savings in the Heritage Fund, and continued investment in infrastructure.

All in all, there appears to be a mutual respect which bears well for a more open and mature Alberta politics.

Finally, a political party with the guts to talk tax hikes

The right-wing mantras of no new taxes and tax cuts have become so embedded in political discourse that suggesting a tax increase, regardless of the social good it may do, has become almost taboo. Even liberal and left-wing politicians have become reluctant to insist on levels of taxation necessary for the quantity and quality of services Canadians want. But finally, a political party has broken the taboo and included appropriate tax increases in its election platform.

The Alberta NDP have promised to introduce a number of tax increases if they should win the May 5th election. These include an increase in the corporate tax rate from 10 to 12 per cent; and a progressive income tax of 12% on income between $125,000 and $150,000 rising to 15% on income over $300,000. Only the top 10% of filers will be affected by the progressive rates. In all fairness, Premier Jim Prentice also abandoned the infamous flat tax in his recent budget but on a much more modest scale.

The small business tax will remain the same, and there will be no sales tax (Ah, Alberta!). The NDP would also review the oil and gas royalty regime.

The increases are hardly revolutionary but their proposal is at least a welcome departure from the unfortunate political correctness that has settled in around tax hikes. And, of no small importance, they certainly don't seem to be hurting the NDP in the polls, which suggests that it isn't the voters who want to avoid the discussion.

02 May 2015

Iran is standing down—will the U.S. and Russia?

Iran has recently agreed, after intense negotiations, to take steps to ensure it cannot produce a nuclear weapon. It claimed it had no intention of doing so anyway, but has now bowed to bullying by the nuclear powers for assurances in black and white. Iran is in effect guaranteeing that it will abide by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory, which precludes non-nuclear nations from obtaining the bomb.

Now the question arises—after pressuring Iran into offering guarantees, will the United States and Russia offer some themselves. Both nations are also signatories of the treaty, and as nuclear nations are obligated to disarm themselves of nuclear weapons, something neither of them are doing. Now an organization named Global Zero is calling on them to put their money where their mouths are. Its high-level commission of military experts—led by former U.S. commander of nuclear forces General James Cartwright—is urgently requesting both countries to stand down their nuclear weapons.

As I write this blog, hundreds of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons are poised to launch at a moment’s notice. Only a short series of computer signals stands between us and nuclear Armageddon. Global Zero is calling on the two nations to immediately end their “launch-on-warning” policies, which could unleash hundreds of nuclear missiles in response to a false alarm. Secondly, they want them to agree to taking their massive arsenals off high alert. Thirdly, they recommend locking in international commitments that would prevent all nuclear weapons from being placed on hair-trigger alert anywhere, thus stopping the trend from spreading to other nuclear countries.

Global Zero is a "non-partisan international community of influential political, military, business, civic and faith leaders—matched by a powerful global grass-roots movement" with the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons by 2030. You can support the movement here. (It's an interesting site.)

The response of the U.S. and Russia to their challenge will indicate whether or not the nuclear powers truly want a nuclear-free world or just want to keep nukes to themselves. We shall see.

Chrétien, Putin and Harper—opportunity lost?

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien's recent chat with Vladimir Putin in Moscow presents an opportunity to our government. Since Mr. Harper has, unlike all the other G7 leaders, refused to talk to the Russian leader, a debriefing of Mr. Chrétien would offer him a possibility of learning what motivates Putin's actions in Ukraine—his sentiments, his goals and his perspectives. Understanding the man would increase the chances of negotiating a peaceful solution to the hostilities in the region. Commonly in international affairs, leaders of hostile nations find common ground for compromise through neutral intermediaries. A leader can gain critical knowledge while avoiding loss of face.

The chance that Harper will avail himself of this opportunity is slim. First, Jean Chrétien is a Liberal and the prime minister hates Liberals. He is unlikely to ask one for advice no matter how useful that advice might be. Second, and more to the point, Harper is incapable of recognizing that an opponent may have valid reasons for his actions. To Harper, everything is black and white. If you're one of us, you are 100 per cent right, if you're antagonistic to one of us, you are 100 per cent wrong. Thus, in Ukraine, Putin is 100 per cent wrong. What he, and Russians generally, feel or think about the security of their country's borders, about their legitimate fear of invasion from the west, is irrelevant. There is nothing to talk about.

At one time—back in the good old days—I thought it unfortunate Canada didn't have more clout on the world stage. We were widely seen as honest brokers whose ability to appreciate both sides of a dispute and whose mastery of compromise could bring hostile parties together. Not any more. Now I am grateful we have little influence. A man like Harper, with his simplistic us and them attitude, would be dangerous if he held any real power in the world. Fortunately, for us and others, his preening self-righteousness isn't taken too seriously.

If Harper does arrange for a meeting with Chrétien in order to exploit his superior knowledge of what makes Putin tick, I'll duly apologize. But I have little fear of that happening.

21 April 2015

The Arctic—the U.S. conserves, Canada exploits

Federal cabinet minister Leona Aglukkaq wears a number of hats. She is Minister of the Environment as well as Minister of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency. Being a member of a Harper cabinet, the latter is of course the top hat. She illustrated this in her recent two-year term as chair of the Arctic Council, the organization that brings together eight northern countries to discuss shared issues and mutual co-operation.

Handing the chairmanship over to the U.S. for the next two years, she announced that Canada's most important achievement during her term was the creation of an economic council as a forum for businesses interested in the north. Most of the representatives on the forum are from large mining or energy companies with only a few from northern businesses. True to form, the government puts exploitation of the north ahead of environmental responsibility.

Not so the U.S. The Americans intend to place climate change at the centre of their term. They have outlined a program of measures to protect the environment, such as developing better ways of dealing with marine pollution. They will also work on developing a network of marine protected areas and on finding alternative fuels for northern communities.

The Americans may be acting altruistically or simply recognizing the simple fact that the economy depends 100 per cent on the environment—if we are to have a healthy economy in the future we must have a healthy environment. A delicate ecosystem such as the Arctic requires special attention. The Prime Minister, despite his economics background, has great difficulty grasping these fundamental facts. It is the Environment Minister's job to explain them. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to have the stomach for the job.

It's hard not to sympathize with the poor woman. Mr. Harper is the boss, is the boss, is the boss, and the boss is rigidly committed to resource exploitation über alles. Overcoming his dogma is no doubt an unenviable task. I fear there is only one means of escape from our status as an environmental pariah and for that we will have to wait until October 19th. In the meantime, the Arctic will have to depend on the Americans and other members of the Council for the respect it deserves.

19 April 2015

Two Americas—one admired, one feared

A global survey conducted by the Worldwide Independent Network and Gallup in 2013 asked the following question: “If there were no barriers to living in any country of the world, which country would you like to live in?” The winner, by a narrow margin, was the United States. And why wouldn't people choose the U.S.? The country is free, prosperous and creative, a wonderful place to spend your life.

But the survey also posed another question: “Which country do you think is the greatest threat to peace in the world today?” The winner again, if winner is the right word, was the United States, this time by a wide margin. No other country came close. Even Americans placed their nation at number three—tied with North Korea. It seems even a lot of Americans are afraid of America.

And here, too, the opinion is justified. No other country causes as much death and destruction in the world; it wages perpetual war; its president has become the world's leading assassin. The international community has good reason to fear this arrogant empire. It certainly scares the hell out of me, and it's getting scarier.

Which I find hugely disappointing. There is so much to admire about this place: its belief in human rights and basic freedoms, not always practiced but always pricking its conscience; its vitality; its leadership in the arts and sciences; its creativity and daring in business—a long list. The blues, baseball and Hollywood have always done it for me.

We need what the Americans have to offer on the world stage. If only they could learn to leave their guns at home.

Worlds apart—women in Iran and Saudi Arabia

On receiving her Master of Architecture degree from the University of British Columbia, Leila Araghian won the UBC Architecture Alumni Henry Elder Prize. Ms. Araghian has since continued in her prize-winning ways. Her Pol-e-Tabiat, or Nature Bridge, in Tehran has won three awards in Iran as well as a Popular Choice prize in highways and bridges category from the New York-based architectural organization, Architizer. A panel of international jurors also nominated it as one of the top five finalists in the architecture and engineering category.

Reading about the success of this remarkably talented woman led me to contrast the status of women in Iran with their status in another Middle Eastern country—Saudi Arabia. The comparison came to mind because Iran is considered an adversary by Western nations whereas Saudi Arabia is a good friend and arms customer. Somehow this relationship seems upside down. Shouldn't we be friends of the country where women can become leading architects rather than the one where they aren't even allowed to drive a car?

Equality of women is one of the major issues of our time. Yet in this instance we seem to have relegated it to the background. Saudi Arabia is the world's most misogynistic nation but remains an intimate friend of the West. When the new king assumed the throne earlier this year, Barack Obama led perhaps the most impressive entourage ever to accompany an American president to pay his respects. Or, less kindly, to genuflect before his highness.

There are, of course, other important issues in the region, but none justify abandoning our commitment to women's equality as we do when we kiss up to the Sauds. We simply make our claim to believe in human rights look ridiculous. But then, in the Middle East, we seem to do that a lot.

11 April 2015

Echoes of the Monroe Doctrine in the Middle Est

Pondering American mischief in the Middle East the other day I had a strange feeling this pattern of behaviour had appeared before. And then I realized where ... in Latin America.

In 1823, the fledgling United States unilaterally declared the Monroe Doctrine, after president James Monroe. Its objective was to keep the European powers out of Latin America, leaving it to the tender mercies of the United States. This, you might think, wouldn't be a bad thing. After all, the Americans believed in democracy and human rights thus they would be good mentors for setting the Latin nations on the right path.

It didn't quite work out that way. In relentless pursuit of its own interests, the U.S. supported brutal dictators, collaborated with oligarchs who had exploited and oppressed the native peoples since the days of the conquistadores, and suppressed democracy without remorse. Only recently, as the South American countries have begun to liberate themselves from American hegemony, are democracy and human rights becoming widely entrenched, and native peoples gaining a place in the sun.

The similarities with American behaviour in the Middle East are remarkable. The U.S. supports brutal dictators such as the Egyptian generals and the appalling Sauds; it collaborates with oligarchs such as the sheiks of the Gulf states; and it has suppressed democracy, in Iran in the twentieth century and in Palestine in the twenty-first. It pursues its interests (and of course Israeli interests) as relentlessly as it has in the Americas.

In a world opinion poll by Win/Gallup International in 2013, the U.S. was voted by far the biggest threat to world peace. Even Americans voted it third, tied with North Korea. The views of the international community are based on reality. No other nation has caused more death and destruction in the world since the end of the Second World War. It now engages in perpetual war.

It does cleave to noble values, of course, but only at home and in Europe, only in the West. Elsewhere it behaves as all empires—pursuing its self-interest with great self-righteousness, applying a version of the Monroe Doctrine wherever it suits its purposes. Some history, apparently, does repeat itself.

10 April 2015

Iran holds the nuclear powers to account

So the United States finally bullied the Iranians into a nuclear deal. Iran has always said it had no intention of building a weapon, but that wasn't good enough for the Americans, or for the other nuclear powers. They wanted it in writing and now they have it. Iran has agreed to not enrich uranium beyond 3.67 per cent, to reduce the number of its centrifuges by two-thirds, and give up 97 per cent of its uranium stockpiles. Any one of these measures would put the possibility of a bomb out of reach. And it has further agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

There has always been a strong odour of hypocrisy about the negotiations. The Non-Proliferation Treaty does more than preclude non-nuclear signatories from possessing the bomb, it also requires the nuclear powers to disarm themselves of the weapon. But the five sitting across the table from Iran—the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom—are not doing that. The U.S. and Russia have reduced the numbers of their weapons but along with their fellow nuclear powers are upgrading them, making them more precise and harder to shoot down. They are, in fact, creating a more dangerous world.

Iran has, quite correctly, called them out on this. Accusing them of malingering, it called for negotiations on setting a target date for nuclear disarmament. And the opportunity for those negotiations is upon us. Later this month, the parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty will meet for their regular 5-year Review Conference.

We shall then see if the powers are serious about relieving the world of this Damoclean sword or whether all the talk about the dangers of Iran having a weapon were just an effort to keep an unwanted member out of the club. This is their opportunity to show good faith, to put their commitment to disarmament in writing just as they demanded Iran put its commitment in writing. Unfortunately, there is no bully big enough to ensure they keep their promises. But that, perhaps, is why nations covet the nuclear option.

26 March 2015

Our wise men have spoken—will the politicians listen?

Last week a report produced by 60 Canadian scholars stated that we can create a clean, sustainable future for our country with only a minimal effect on the economy. The scholars, representing every province as well as climate change expertise in areas from engineering to sociology, offered a consensus on viable, science-based solutions for greenhouse gas reduction.

The report, Acting on Climate Change: Solutions from Canadian Scholars, was produced by Sustainable Canada Dialogues, an initiative under the UNESCO-McGill Chair for Dialogues on Sustainability and the Trottier Institute for Science and Public Policy.

The proposals include a price on carbon, either through a tax or cap-and-trade; transferring subsidies for the fossil fuel industries to sustainable energy sources; and low carbon policies for urban development that include new building codes, reduced energy consumption and more public transit. The measures could reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by the middle of the century with reductions of up to 28 per cent in10 years.

Implementing the report's proposals would cost us about one per cent of our GDP but would save us four or five times that much in health and environmental costs. The scientists have spoken, now it's up to the politicians to follow through and incorporate the recommendations into policy.

Unfortunately, we cannot expect much from our current federal government. To date, it has done its best to ignore science (while actively muzzling scientists) and it shows no sign of mending its ways. However some of the provincial governments have been demonstrating more responsibility. We can encourage them and, as for the federal laggards, there is an election approaching. It will be up to us to act on the advice of our wise men and support politicians who will do likewise.

You can personally endorse the report here.

23 March 2015

Prentice makes nice to labour

When governments find themselves in a financial bind they tend to make the civil service their first budget target. Overpaid public servants is a popular cliche. Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, his government facing a $7-billion deficit, appeared to be taking that tried and true approach, calling public sector wages unsustainable and pointing to $2.6-billion of wage increases over the next three years.

It was refreshing, therefore, to see him take a more constructive tone last week. Following a meeting with leaders of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, the United Nurses of Alberta, Health Sciences Association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees Alberta, he was the soul of conciliation toward the brothers and sisters.

He not only assured them he would not attempt to roll back wages, he promised to revoke Bill 45, a measure that restricted union activity and imposed prohibitive fines for illegal strikes. The bill, passed in 2013 during former premier Alison Redford's brief regime but never proclaimed, seriously divided the government and its employees. It was being challenged in the courts by the United Nurses of Alberta as a Charter violation. The premier stated it should never have been introduced in the first place and hoped that with it out of the way a more respectful tone will be set for labour negotiations. The union leaders expressed that they, too, hoped the meeting would mark a respectful turn in the province's relations with labour.

“This is not about rolling back contracts," said Prentice. "It’s about working together to define solutions as we go forward that reflect the fiscal circumstances we’re in.” On his part, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees president Guy Smith declared that repealing Bill 45 removed an obstacle for future discussions and added, "I really believe that we heard a strong commitment from the premier and his ministers ... to make sure things do improve for everybody.”

All this represents a civilized approach to the relationship between government and its employees, all too often absent at a time of financial challenge. It bodes well for the province's future.

19 March 2015

Cluster bombs and climate change—the good news

The media infamously saturate us with bad news. If it bleeds, it leads ... and all that. Nonetheless, good news does surface from time to time. This week saw two good news stories that particularly caught my attention.

The first was that Canada ratified the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the 90th state party to do so. Cluster munitions are bombs that open up in mid-air and release dozens or hundreds of bomblets. Often many of these little bombs fail to explode and remain active for years after hostilities have ended. They are then picked up by civilians, often children who perceive them as toys, and are killed or maimed. A third of the victims of cluster munitions are children.

The convention forbids signatories from the use, production, transfer, and stockpiling of these weapons, and requires that current stockpiles be destroyed within eight years. It further requires the clearance of areas contaminated by cluster munition remnants within 10 years and assistance be provided to victims.

Canada's legislation is among the world's weakest with loopholes that allow Canadian soldiers to assist allied armies with use of the weapons. This, however, is not allowed under the convention and one must hope the prospect of embarrassment in front of the international community would keep us from exploiting the loopholes.

The second story concerned a report by 59 Canadian scientists, economists, engineers, sociologists, architects and philosophers from all 10 provinces who collaborated on a study to determine how we can wean the country off fossil fuels. They concluded we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to a very low level within 30 years. And it would be economical. It would cost us about one per cent of GDP but would pay off four or five times over in reduced health and environmental costs.

The group recommended a range of measures from a carbon tax and electrifying public vehicles to linking major cities with high-speed rail and promoting urban density. It all sounds a bit Pollyannaish to me, but we can hope. The International Energy Agency recently announced that while the global economy continued to grow in 2014, the amount of carbon dioxide produced didn't, the first time emissions have declined without an economic downturn in 40 years, so who knows?

Protecting children from bombs and reducing global warming—Pollyannaish or not, it's enough to put a smile on your face.

Netanyahu sabotages U.S. Palestine policy ... a good thing?

How much will the Americans put up with from this yahoo? He is the most arrogant leader in the international community, making even Vladimir Putin look modest by comparison. He has the most powerful nation in the world as his country's best friend and benefactor, so what does he do? First, he humiliates its president, then he disdainfully dismisses its most important policy for his region.

The U.S. believes in a two-state solution to the seemingly endless conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The newly re-elected prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, has announced that under his watch there will be no Palestinian state. Furthermore, as to the American opposition to Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, those will continue.

He puts the Americans in an impossible position when it comes to recognizing Palestine on the world stage. They have justified their opposition by insisting that Palestinian recognition can only be achieved by negotiation with Israel, but Netanyahu has made it clear that such negotiation is pointless. The U.S. now has no justification in opposing Palestinians pursuing their statehood independently of Israel. How ironic if the main beneficiaries of Netanyahu's hubris are his enemies.

Netanyahu is obviously confident the Israeli tail will continue to wag the American dog. And he might be right—after all, he owns Congress. On the other hand, President Obama may now feel liberated from any obligation to Israel in his negotiations with Iran, something that would help greatly in striking a deal. If that should prove the case, the Israeli prime minister will have inadvertently done us all a favour.

15 March 2015

News flash—Western nation stands up to Saudis

Western nations may proclaim their virtue but when it comes to Saudi Arabia, they behave like whores. They posture their belief in democracy and human rights but genuflect before a kingdom that manifests contempt for both.

The allure of the desert sheiks is twofold: they sell lots of oil and they buy lots of guns. They have the largest reserves of conventional oil in the world and they are the world's largest purchaser of military hardware. The oil alone brings Western leaders bowing and scraping. Earlier this year, President Obama cut short a visit to India to lead perhaps the most prestigious political entourage in American history to pay his respects to the new Saudi king. Add to the oil the seemingly inexhaustible market for arms and Western leaders shiver with ecstasy. If there is an inconsistency between their concerns about instability in the Middle East and their turning it into a massive arms market, they refuse to notice.

What a surprise then when Sweden announced it was terminating its arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a primary overseas market for its defense firms, over a concern about human rights. The move followed complaints by Swedish foreign minister Margot Wallstrom that the Saudis prevented her from speaking about democracy and women's rights at a gathering of the Arab League in Cairo. The Saudis retaliated by withdrawing their ambassador.

Needless to say, Swedish business leaders are upset, publicly claiming this undermines the country’s credibility as a trading partner. Its credibility as a promoter of democracy and human rights, on the other hand, apparently means naught to these guys.

The Swedes may just have started a conversation among European countries regarding the ethics of peddling arms to a brutal, misogynistic dictatorship. The kingdom's public floggings and beheadings, oppression of women and general disregard for civil rights is forcing many European leaders to recognize it for what it is—a medieval theocracy hiding behind a veil of fabulous oil wealth.

Canada, meanwhile, is busily working to expand its arms sales to the kingdom. Like the Swedish businessmen, our government is not about to let principle interfere with profit.

12 March 2015

Work ain't what it was—it's worse

Work is getting worse. In any case, that's the tale told by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce in its Employment Quality Index. The index measures three key areas of job satisfaction: the distribution of part-time vs. full-time jobs; self-employment vs. paid employment; and compensation for full-time jobs. It indicates job quality has been on an overall decline for 25 years.

Since the late 1980s, the number of part-time jobs has risen much faster than the number of full-time jobs; self-employment has risen faster than paid employment; and the number of low-paying jobs has risen faster than the number of mid-paying jobs, which in turn has risen faster than the number of high-paying jobs. In other words, a smaller portion of the labour force has higher bargaining power while a larger portion has reduced bargaining power. According to Benjamin Tal, the author of the report, “This is the main reason why the income gap is rising, which I believe is the number one economic, social issue facing the country in this decade.”

We have seen, over this same period, some of the most extraordinary technological progress in history. From an employment perspective, one wonders, what was the point? We might ask the same question of all the trade agreements we've signed. They, too, were supposed to lead us closer to the promised land. It seems we may have been doubly duped.

Why do we allow face coverings in the House of Commons?



The Prime Minister explains to the House why face coverings are unacceptable to Canadians



08 March 2015

Zehaf-Bibeau had a point

At the risk of being investigated by the 130 agents RCMP Commissioner Bob Paulson has working on the Michael Zehaf-Bibeau case, I must say I think the man made a valid point.

After watching his now famous video, or at least the portion big brother has allowed us to see, I cannot dismiss all the would-be jihadist's rhetoric. His message was, to put it simply, if you kill us, we will kill you. Vengeance is not a pretty motive but there's a lot of it around. Since 9/11 the U.S., despite being a Christian country, has shown a great deal more "an eye for an eye" than "love your enemies."

One might say they have justification. But then so do Muslims. The horror that the U.S. and its friends inflicted on Iraq was vastly greater than that inflicted on the U.S. by the 9/11 jihadists, so the anger expressed by Zehaf-Bibeau is legitimate. (I get angry at our government's callous dismissal of Palestinian suffering and I'm neither Arab nor Muslim.) Directing his anger against Canada is not quite so legitimate. It's true we skipped the Iraq debacle, but on the other hand we sent troops into Afghanistan and are now bombing ISIS, so we are likely responsible for the deaths of a few jihadists and no doubt collaterally damaging a few innocents. Such is war.

Zehan-Bibeau is no different in some key respects from many other lost souls. Immersed in drugs and booze and perhaps crime, they find religion, usually Jesus in Western society, and are saved. They find sanctuary and purpose in their faith and often become the most devout of the devout. Fortunately, they rarely celebrate their zealotry with violence. Zehaf-Bibeau did and paid the price—dying by the sword he chose to live by.

Before wrapping up his message, Zehan-Bibeau instinctively added one very Canadian touch. After threatening us with violent jihadist justice, he concludes with a "thank you." Polite to the end ... literally.


A note for the RCMP: I swear that I am not, and never have been, a member of any jihadist organization, nor did I aid, abet, facilitate or counsel Michael Zehaf-Bibeau in any way.

06 March 2015

Prentice is right—Albertans are to blame

If Albertans want to know why their government is having budget problems, Premier Jim Prentice advises them to "look in the mirror." His comment went, as they say, viral. Opposition leaders have demanded he apologize for his insult to the people of this province. “I was really quite surprised that he would come out with something that was so insulting and so disconnected from the reality in Alberta,” said NDP leader Rachel Notley.

The truth can hurt. And Ms. Notley's outrage notwithstanding, the premier was simply stating the bald truth. "In terms of who is responsible," he declared, "We need only look in the mirror." This is true and it has taken place under 44 years of Conservative rule, and who has elected the Conservatives to power for all these years? Why, the people of Alberta, of course. That's where the buck stops.

The good citizens of this province have consistently supported, often overwhelmingly, a party that introduced a flat tax, has consistently rejected a sales tax, has been outrageously generous to the oil industry (one of its major funders), has persisted in including oil and gas revenues in its budgeting, and has failed to put aside an appropriate portion for the future. All of this, the very policies that brought us to the current state of affairs and keep us trapped in a boom and bust economy, we must assume Albertans approved. They have gotten the government they want ... and deserve.

One wonders if Premier Prentice recognizes the irony of his remark. When Albertans look in the mirror they see the Conservative Party—his party. In any case, we shouldn't shoot this messenger, we should vote him out.

03 March 2015

Soul mates and the politics of fear

Fabricating a threat to the nation in order to instill fear in the population may be demagoguery, but it is also a highly effective way for leaders to rally the people behind them. Frightened citizens turn conservative and cling to what they know, i.e. the incumbent government, rather than risk change. Politicians understand this very well and, in dictatorships and democracies alike, have been exploiting it ever since politics was invented.

We are currently witnessing two unpopular national leaders, both facing elections this year that threaten defeat, resorting to this ancient but proven strategy. I refer to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his soul mate, our very own Stephen Harper.

Harper is building his game plan around terrorism. The chance of a Canadian being harmed by a terrorist attack in this country is absolutely remote, but the PM isn't allowing that tidy little fact to deter him. The latest salvo in his war on terror is Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015. This omnibus of an effort has been excoriated by a host of legal experts for its excessive intrusion on civil liberties and its lack of oversight. In true demagogic fashion, opponents of the legislation are subjected to the usual accusations of treason. “Now is not the time for the NDP agenda of attacking the police and the security agencies,” Mr. Harper said. “Now is the time to take on terrorists.” Considering that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s son is a cop, I doubt attacking the police is high on the party's agenda.

Netanyahu is founding his fear-mongering on Iran's purported effort to create a nuclear weapon. He is currently bringing his crusade to the U.S., a crusade that isn't limited to the truth. His own intelligence agency, Mossad, told him Iran wasn't performing the activities necessary to produce nuclear weapons, but that didn't prevent him going to the United Nations and doing a Colin Powell. Using a bomb cartoon and a red marker, he patiently explained to the General Assembly that Iran was nearing completion of a bomb. Apparently Mossad was not amused.

So will the demagoguery work? In the case of Israel, we shall soon see—the election is on St. Patrick's Day. As for how effectively Harper has frightened Canadians, we will have to wait until the fall.

01 March 2015

Presumption of innocence be damned—Putin killed Boris Nemtsov

In this country, the "golden thread" of criminal law, embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is the presumption of innocence. To quote the Charter, "Any person charged with an offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal." It is one of our most fundamental rights.

In Russia, like due process, it means nothing. President Vladimir Putin runs a gangster state where he can muzzle or murder his critics with impunity. Russia's top investigative body, the Investigative Committee, answers to Putin directly. It announced it is looking into several possible motives for the assassination of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, including an attempt to destabilize the state, Islamic extremism, the Ukraine conflict and Putin's private life. It pointedly omitted the overwhelmingly obvious motive: Nemtsov's vocal criticism of the president's policies. It seems clear where this investigation will go, or perhaps I should say won't go. We can reasonably assume the Investigative Committee will presume Putin innocent of the murder, regardless of the evidence.

Nemtsov led a weakened opposition, but he was a vigorous and voluble critic. Only hours before his murder he gave a radio interview in which he denounced Putin's "mad, aggressive" policies and the day after he was to help lead a rally protesting Russia's actions in Ukraine and the economic crisis at home. To a former KGB thug like Putin, such dissent is intolerable, just as it was intolerable to the Communism that he served. Putin didn't pull the trigger, and he may not have ordered the hit, but he is primarily responsible for the intolerance and lawlessness that puts the lives of critics of his regime in grave danger. One way or another, he stands responsible for the assassination of Boris Nemtsov. We need not presume innocence here. There can be no doubt where the buck stops.

28 February 2015

Alberta woes—It ain't the economy, stupid

Here in Alberta, energy superpower, we are going through the bust part of one of our infamous boom and bust cycles. The premier is weighing the government's options. Cutting MLA salaries, imposing health-care premiums and hiking post-secondary tuition are some of the ideas mentioned. He has even floated the possibility of adjusting the province's regressive flat tax and—the heavens tremble—adopting a sales tax. “Everything is on the table,” he has declared.

Well, not quite everything, it seems. He hasn't discussed the approach that would end the ridiculous misery of boom and bust once and for all. The solution is no secret. Most recently, it was proposed in a unique way by University of Calgary economist Ron Kneebone. "It's not the economy that's the problem," he observed, "It's the government itself that's the problem." He points out that the oft-mentioned lack of diversity is neither problem nor solution because the Alberta economy is in fact very well diversified. The problem is that the government insists on making the same mistake over and over again—the mistake of including oil revenues as a major part of its budget. His advice? He suggests the government should always budget for $50 a barrel oil. If the price goes above that, and it surely will, the added revenue goes into the Heritage Fund, just as Peter Lougheed intended all those many years ago.

This is of course the famous Norway approach. Norway, too, has substantial oil and gas revenues, but not the attendant boom and bust. The government includes very little of those revenues in its budget. The bulk goes into a sovereign wealth fund, now worth about a trillion dollars. When Norway's oil and gas run out, the whole population will be able to move to the Bahamas and live in the sun. In the meantime, the country's economy rolls along perfectly well with a significantly higher GDP per capita and a significantly lower unemployment rate than Canada's.

This is Premier Prentice's big chance. He can deal with boom and bust once and for all and guarantee future Albertans a solid nest egg in the bargain. He can, as Professor Kneebone puts it, promise to "never again hold Albertans hostage to high energy prices." We once had a premier with that kind of vision—his name was Peter Lougheed. Will the next one be Jim Prentice?

27 February 2015

Parsing Bill C-51— the academics' letter

The first criticism of Bill C-51, the Anti-terrorism Act 2015, is the fact it is entirely unnecessary. Our criminal law is already capable of dealing with terrorist activities. More to the point, terrorism poses no significant threat to Canadians and therefore no further infringements on Canadians’ civil liberties are warranted.

The facts are clear. In 2014 two Canadians were killed in terrorist attacks. I do not demean the death of any individual—all lives are precious—but from a national perspective two deaths is trivial. The chances of a Canadian being harmed in a terrorist attack in this country are absolutely remote.

Specific articles in the Bill that concern me include Section 16, which could create a chilling effect on freedom of speech, and Section 42 (12.1) which in effect turns CSIS into a secret police force. But my parsing of the Bill is that of an amateur. For an expert critique, I strongly recommend the open letter to Members of Parliament by 100 academics. The authors represent a range of disciplines but primarily the faculties of law. They do not critique the entire Bill (a monster in the tradition of the Conservatives' infamous omnibus bills) but concentrate on five points of analysis that urge MPs to vote against it.

The letter can be read here. If, like me, you are a layman in the law, having your suspicions of this proposed legislation confirmed by such an impressive battery of distinguished legal minds is reassuring indeed.

23 February 2015

Harper outmaneuvers Trudeau on Bill C-51

If any political party ought to oppose Bill C-51, it's the Liberal Party. After all, it's liberal values that the Bill threatens to erode. And yet, Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has decided to support it. He wants some changes, and if the Conservatives don't make them, he will ... if and when his party is elected to government.

Why is this liberal leader playing games with our civil liberties? Probably because Harper has simply outmaneuvered him. Stronger measures against terrorism are a motherhood issue—most Canadians will support the idea in principle. Harper is counting on that and using it to frighten Trudeau out of opposing the Bill. And it's worked.

Indeed I suspect it's worked even better than the Conservatives had hoped. They don't need Liberal support to pass the Bill and they're in a hurry, so Trudeau is unlikely to get the amendments he wants. In any case, why would they give him his changes when he has so conveniently put himself in a box? Denying him amendments will stick him with the ambiguous position of not liking the legislation but supporting it anyway during the coming election campaign. The electorate will see a wishy-washy Trudeau contrasted against a decisive Harper, and that of course is exactly the message the Conservatives are selling.

Mr. Trudeau's approach may be appropriate for a full and proper debate, which this Bill is unlikely to get, but I suspect during an election campaign it's going to be an albatross—a position much too complicated for sound bites on an issue made for sound bites.

22 February 2015

Harper fails Conservative citizenship criteria

Over the signature of Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander, the Conservative Party of Canada recently emailed a petition to its supporters, rallying them against face covering during citizenship oaths. Apparently Conservative ire was raised by a Federal Court of Canada decision that struck down the ban on Muslim women wearing niqabs when taking the oath, a decision the government is appealing.

In Mr. Alexander's petition he states, "We believe that when someone becomes a Canadian citizen, they should embrace our culture and everything that makes us proud to be Canadian." Everything, Mr. Alexander? Really? No thinking person can embrace everything that people may be proud of in any culture. For example, as an atheist and a feminist, I am unable to embrace a national anthem that includes phrases such as "God keep our land" and "True patriot love in all thy sons command." And as much as I love the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the opening statement "Whereas Canada is founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law" sticks in my craw.

But enough about me. Our prime minister also has trouble embracing "everything that makes us proud to be Canadian." In fact, he has trouble embracing the very things that make most Canadians proud.

Surveys that ask Canadians that very question—what makes them most proud of their country—invariably rank two institutions at the top of the list: Medicare and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But Mr. Harper only reluctantly tolerates the former and despises the latter. With his own party leader failing his citizenship criteria, Mr. Alexander might want to rethink his position on niqabs.

Where is the outrage about the RCMP's witch-hunt?

At one time I instinctively assumed that government agencies were apolitical, servants of the people, not the servants of any particular philosophy or party. That, it increasingly seems, was the good old days. Recently I, like many others, have the distinct impression that the Canada Revenue Agency, for example, is serving the political interests of the Conservative government. Its focus on auditing environmental groups and other progressive organizations has come to seem more than coincidental.

Now I am getting the same impression about the RCMP. I knew that the government had been gathering intelligence on environmentalists and sharing it with the oil industry, but it's the recent RCMP's report on environmentalists that suggested to me that it, too, has been co-opted.

The report shamelessly promotes the oil industry while stating that environmentalists “claim” climate change is the most serious environmental threat and “claim” it is a result of human activity. The report echoes Finance Minister Joe Oliver's accusations that environmental groups are foreign-funded and undermine the country's interests by opposing the use of fossil fuels. It coins the phrase "anti-Canada petroleum movement" and repeats it endlessly in high propaganda fashion.

The first, and obvious, question is what the hell is the RCMP doing compiling a report on the environmental movement? Environmental organizations are reputable groups and environmentalists are respectable citizens. Indeed, in seeking to protect the environment, they are doing what is perhaps the noblest work a citizen can do in this modern age.

Certainly an environmentalist may go rogue and commit a serious offence (as the occasional member of police forces has been known to do), and this the RCMP must investigate. But this is rare indeed. If environmentalists commit unlawful activity it usually consists of nothing more than standing in front of a logging truck or a bulldozer. This comprehensive investigation by the national police force is a slander on respectable citizens—an outrage against civil society.

We seem to discern a troika here: the government, the oil industry and the police and spy agencies. Combined with Bill-C51, the RCMP's behaviour is ominous indeed.

13 February 2015

ISIS and the grand imam—not so different

That ISIS is a scourge of major proportions is agreed on across the globe. Driven by some religious mania, they persecute other religions, behead infidels, burn enemies alive—all with sickening zeal and an obsession with publicity. Other Muslims are as outraged as any of us. A host of Arab governments and Muslim religious authorities have expressed vigorous condemnation.

For example, Sheikh Ahmad Muhammad Al-Tayyeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar, the world’s leading institution of Sunni learning, has condemned ISIS as “corrupters of the Earth” who wage war against God and the prophet.

So far, so good, but then the good imam takes a weird and disturbing turn. He goes on to say that members of ISIS deserve the scriptural punishment of death, crucifixion and the amputation of limbs.

The Sheikh is not to be taken lightly in these matters. Aside from being grand imam, he is a former president of al-Azhar University, holds a Ph. D. in Islamic philosophy from the Sorbonne, served for two years as the most powerful cleric in Egypt as its Grand Mufti, and is considered to be one of the most moderate Sunni clerics in the country. And yet here he is espousing punishments as barbaric as those carried out by ISIS. What is an objective observer of Islam supposed to think?

Of course Netanyahu "rules in Washington"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plan to address the U.S. Congress next month has created quite a stir. President Obama, apparently not informed of the visit beforehand, is fuming. At least a dozen Democrats, including the outspokenly pro-Israel Vice-President Biden, have announced they will not attend. Even many American Jews who are normally staunch supporters of Israel have expressed concern. But Netanyahu is not deterred.

The prominent left-wing Israeli politician, Yossi Sarid, claims the Israeli PM, "is determined to show the president once and for all who really rules in Washington, who is the landlord both here and there." With all due respect to Mr. Sarid, it has for a long time been obvious who really rules in Washington, at least as far as the Middle East is concerned, and it ain't the president of those United States.

There is a certain ritual that defines the process of accommodation to the Israeli will. Israel commits yet another aggression in Palestine, for example building another illegal settlement in the West Bank. The Americans complain loudly, insisting this will hurt prospects for peace, blah, blah, blah. Then the Israeli Prime Minister visits Washington and tactfully whispers in the president's shell-like ear, reminding him that he commands more clout in Congress than the president. The American concern then fades away and the new status quo is quietly accepted. Israel ruled in Washington well before Netanyahu mounted the stage.

Congress has long been whipped by AIPAC (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee), perhaps the most powerful lobby in the capitol. Congressmen and women toe its line with impressive fealty. AIPAC is keeping its distance from this event, suggesting that even it is apprehensive about Netanyahu's hubris, but I suspect all this will pass. The ritual will return.

Did he really say that?

How does he get this stuff out of his mouth? Pope Francis, I mean. In a recent audience in St. Peter’s Square, he declared that couples who choose not to have children are "selfish." He went on to pontificate that, “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society.” He seemed oblivious to the fact he was describing his own institution.

That is not to say he himself is selfish. He may have a few children scattered about. Quite a few popes have had, legally and otherwise. But if he has, he certainly isn't surrounding himself with them.

Last year, in a similar vein, he warned against a “culture of wellbeing” where couples opt for nice holidays and second homes in the countryside rather than children. “It might be better, more comfortable, to have a dog, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the dog,” he said. “Then, in the end, this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.” Does he have no compassion, one wonders, for his fellow priests, for all those bishops and cardinals, ending their lives in bitter loneliness? Should his conscience not demand he allow them to couple, offering them the gifts of children and happiness in their declining years?

But no, this is not for the men of the cloth. Not for them the worry, the weight, the risk. The Church has always imposed those burdens primarily on women. It has fashioned its doctrine to coerce Catholic women into maximizing their production of little soldiers for the army of the faithful, and coercing their husbands into supporting them. Pope Francis, we can be confident, will not volunteer his brothers to do their share. Selfishness, it seems, is reserved for the clergy.

18 January 2015

French hold most favourable views of Jews and Muslims

How the French view their minority populations after the violent events earlier this month will probably take a while to sort out. But a poll conducted last year suggested they were about the most tolerant in Europe.

Eighty-nine per cent of French men and women hold a favourable view of Jews and 72 per cent hold a favourable view of Muslims. The British were second, with 83 per cent and 64 per cent holding favourable views of Jews and Muslims respectively. Next came Germany at 82 and 58.

Some countries had distinctly unfavourable attitudes. In none of the countries surveyed did the people hold an unfavourable opinion of Jews (although the Greeks split 47-47), but in Greece, Italy and Poland opinions were more unfavourable than favourable toward Muslims, with Italy having the lowest opinion.

Even in the more tolerant countries, Jews were much more favourably viewed than Muslims. It will be interesting to see if attitudes change after the attacks. The relatively low esteem in which Muslims are held already does not bode well for the future.

Why are Americans so frightened?

If you were asked what the American people's top policy priority was, what would you answer? The economy perhaps? Immigration? Global warming? You would be wrong. According to the Pew Research Center, Americans' top policy concern is terrorism, with 76 per cent ranking it as a top priority, just edging out the economy.

Why, one wonders, are they so afraid of terrorists when the threat is so miniscule. Over the last five years, the chance of an American being killed by a terrorist anywhere in the world is about one in 20 million. An American is four times more likely to be struck by lightning, 25 times more likely to drown in his own bathtub. And attacks have been decreasing. Conservatives might say this is due to additional security since 9/11, but in fact the decline has simply continued a trend established before 9/11. The fear is clearly irrational.

Nonetheless, there are many beneficiaries. Demagogues have a useful stick to beat their political opponents with. (I suspect our own federal government would love to have us in the same fearful state as our American cousins.)

The NSA and the CIA are prospering. As is Homeland Security, the most bloated government department outside of the Pentagon. And of course the defense industry happily makes its billions. And the military happily spends its billions. The military is perhaps the only publicly-funded institution in the U.S. that has nearly unanimous bipartisan approval in Congress combined with little oversight.

A frightened citizenry meekly accepts a militarized state, and the military-industrial-Congressional complex feeds on its fear. That the nation finds itself in a condition of perpetual war is not surprising.

16 January 2015

A sales tax for Alberta?

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice recently committed heresy. Faced with plummeting oil prices and the possibility of a $500-million deficit, the premier actually encouraged discussion about adopting a sales tax.

“I don’t think Albertans generally advocate a sales tax," he said, "but I’m prepared to be educated and to hear from people.” And he's not alone. Even Ted Morton, former Alberta finance minister and minister of energy, and one of the most right-wing members of the Conservative Party, followed suit. “I’ll just repeat what every economist has told the government of Alberta for the last decade," said Morton, "that a sales tax .. is the most competitive and most efficient type of tax.”

So here's a possible scenario. There's no way the premier will announce a sales tax before an election, so first we get the election call. Then the premier continues to scare the electorate with dire financial predictions, including the possibility of severe cuts to basic services. With Wild Rose now tucked safely into the fold, he may even mention increased revenues. The Conservatives then proceed to win an overwhelming majority (guaranteed). Early in the new term, with Albertans now conditioned for the shock, he announces the tax.

Of course, all this may be unnecessary. Oil prices could bounce back up and have the province swimming in revenue once again. I pretend I was never foolish enough to predict Alberta would have a sales tax, and the province quietly returns to the folly of a boom and bust economy. Life goes on.

So what did Raif Badawi say?

The world is now aware of Saudi Arabia's satanic punishment of blogger Raif Badawi—ten years in prison and a 1,000 lashes for saying things unacceptable to the country's powerful religious establishment. But what exactly did he say? A lot of sensible things, as it turned out.

For example, here is his view of secularism: "Secularism respects everyone and does not offend anyone ... Secularism ... is the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world."

Or about the possibility of Hamas establishing a religious state in Palestine: "Look at what had happened after the European peoples succeeded in removing the clergy from public life and restricting them to their churches. They built up human beings and (promoted) enlightenment, creativity and rebellion. States which are based on religion confine their people in the circle of faith and fear."

On the Arab Spring in Egypt: "It is not yet clear whether Egypt is about to change, but it is our hope that a new Egypt will emerge from the painful birth pangs its people are experiencing ... after years of subservience and oppression."

On the nature of liberalism,: "For me, liberalism simply means live and let live. This is a splendid slogan. ... the other faction, controlling and claiming exclusive monopoly of the truth, is so hostile that they are driven to discredit it without discussion or fully understanding what the word actually means. They have succeeded in planting hostility to liberalism in the minds of the public and turning people against it, lest the carpet be pulled out from under their feet."

On the need to separate religion and state: "No religion at all has any connection to mankind's civic progress."

Tough talk, but not critical of Islam as such, critical rather of excessive power of religious authority. It is exactly the kind of enlightened voice that the Arab world needs to hear if it is to, as he says, lift itself out of the third world. Obviously the clerics of Saudi Arabia are determined to anchor the Kingdom right where it is.

The pope's diminished freedom of speech

Did the pope just display an iota of sympathy for the zealots who massacred Charlie Hebdo staff? In response to a question about the attack, he replied, "One cannot provoke, one cannot insult other people’s faith, one cannot make fun of faith."

The pontiff justified his position by stating that if someone cursed his mother, he would punch them. "It’s normal," he insisted, "You cannot provoke." With all due respect to the pope's logic, an institution is not your mother. If insulting an institution justifies violence, then why only religious institutions? Many people are as profoundly and passionately committed to their political beliefs as deeply as others, including the pope, are to their theological beliefs. Why, therefore, should religious believers be spared offence, but not political believers?

If religions did not intrude on public life an exception might be justified, but they do. They have done terrible things throughout history, causing much suffering and death, and they still do. They have earned no right to avoid criticism any more than any other kind of institution.

One can sympathize with the pope's sensitivity to satire. His institution has been subjected to a flood of criticism, including much mockery, for its provision of sanctuary to pedophiles and other sins. There must have been times when the pope would dearly have loved to give mother church's tormentors a damn good punch. There was a time when such as he could have and would have. The Catholic Church has in the past often punished heretics with as heavy a hand as the Islamic zealots punished Charlie Hebdo. One hopes the pope's sentiments aren't flavoured with a trace of nostalgia.

14 January 2015

AI—will they keep us as pets?

It isn't as if we don't have enough BIG things to worry about—global warming, resource depletion, nuclear war, for starters—now renowned physicist Stephen Hawking and brilliant entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk are warning about the threat of artificial intelligence (AI). "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race," says Hawking, while Musk suggests that AI is probably "our biggest existential threat."

This isn't surprising, really. Like technology generally, AI has steadily advanced and has already passed the point where it can beat the best human players at chess or Jeopardy. Machines can learn some things much faster than humans and are better at reprogramming themselves to do certain tasks more efficiently. Our brains are simply matter driven by electrochemical processes; there would seem to be no reason why they can't be duplicated ... or exceeded. And if AI exceeds our own, it would seem to be in charge. As science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer puts it, "By the point when you sit down in front of your computer and your computer says, 'Good morning, I'm in charge now,' it's too late."

A machine with AI could be quite superior to flesh and blood humans both physically and mentally. For example, a robot could be designed as a perfect space explorer, immune to radiation, no need for oxygen or water, etc. Equipped with AI it could master space in a way we couldn't hope to. We might think of AI as simply the next step in evolution, a superior creature better adapted to a more challenging future.

So, we might ask, in this new scheme of things what would become of us? Our comparative weaknesses might become tedious to AI. With little to offer them, they might just dispose of us. Considering that much of the research into AI is being done by the military, such a ruthless attitude might well be imbued into the resulting creatures. On the other hand, if they are imbued with the attitudes of, say, environmentalists, they might declare us an endangered species to be carefully protected and preserved. At the very least we could, with a little house training, make quite endearing pets. And as a species with a greater intelligence than ours, they might actually deal with issues such as global warming and resource depletion. The future need not look so dark after all.

11 January 2015

The House of Saud—they may be terrorists, but they're our terrorists

During the Cold War, the West made allies out of some brutal dictatorial regimes. A challenge on this often met with the cynical answer, "they may be bastards, but they're our bastards." The Cold War is over, but the sentiment and the policy that generated it live on.

Western countries continue to ally themselves with brutal dictatorships, perhaps the first among them being Saudi Arabia. A Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was recently convicted of insulting Islam. As punishment, he is to serve 10 years in prison and suffer 1,000 lashes. The lashes are to be delivered 50 at a time once a week over 20 weeks ... in public, outside a mosque. The point of this barbaric punishment is clear—a message to other Saudis that criticism of the powerful religious establishment will not be tolerated. This is classic terrorism: the use of violence against civilians to frighten people into submitting to a political or religious idea. Indeed, this atrocity is the most common form of terrorism, not that of al Qaeda or ISIS or various individual actors, but that of a government to coerce its own citizens.

The Saudis are also known to sponsor terrorism, quite possibly including the attacks of 9/11, yet they are good friends with Western nations, particularly the U.S. And why not? They offer a seemingly inexhaustible supply of oil combined with a seemingly inexhaustible market for weapons. The U.S. recently consummated the biggest arms deal in its history with the Sauds. On its part, our government proudly announced a Canadian firm has contracted a $15-million sale of armoured vehicles to the desert kingdom. Selling guns to terrorists—what a pretty picture that is.

So the sentiment—slightly modified—lingers on: "they may be terrorists, but they're our terrorists." Hypocrisy is ever the handmaid of foreign policy.

Harper's histrionics

Terrorist attacks are theatre. And what theatre they have been presenting lately. The 9/11 spectacle of planes flying into tall buildings was the most spectacular event ever seen on television. The shooting spree by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau on Parliament Hill put Canada in the global spotlight for days, and the recent mass murder in Paris has mesmerized the world. It's hard to beat a terrorist attack for high drama.

It's not surprising therefore that these events attract massive publicity, which of course is largely the point. But outside of sensational news days, how important are they? According to our Prime Minister, very important. They, in his words, "threaten the peace, freedom and democracy our countries so dearly value."

Let's parse Mr. Harper's comment. Terrorist attacks certainly threaten the peace, but to what degree? The answer is not very much. In the U.S. for instance, the land of 9/11, Americans are four times more likely to be struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. In Canada, the peaceable kingdom, the risk is even less, that is to say hardly any risk at all.

As for democracy, the answer is much the same. Islamist extremists don't threaten the state, at least any Western state. They aren't going to overthrow the American government, or the Canadian, or the French. They pose no threat to democracy. And as to the threat to our freedoms, it isn't terrorist attacks that pose the threat, it's our reaction, or overreaction, to those attacks that has eroded our freedoms.

So when these random events, vicious though they may be, pose such little threat, why does our Prime Minister prattle on about threats to our values? Why does he, and many of his political colleagues elsewhere, use these events to greatly expand the powers of our spy agencies and our security forces, thereby doing more to threaten our civil liberties than the terrorists could hope to do?

One answer is panic. Politicians fear terrorism because it makes them look weak, and little terrorizes a politician more than looking weak. Another answer is demagoguery. Since the dawn of politics, leaders have rallied their people around them by instilling fear, by convincing citizens they are in mortal danger. One hates to think a Canadian leader would exploit mass murder for political advantage, but our leader isn't exactly the prince of ethics and he desperately needs a stick to beat Mr. Trudeau off with.

Both these reasons may apply to Mr. Harper's histrionics. On the other hand, perhaps it's just that terrorism is an issue that nicely accommodates his view of the world. The Prime Minister is a man who sees the world in black and white. He is uncomfortable with subtlety, with nuance, with grey areas. You are either with him or against him, friend or enemy. Terrorism plays perfectly into this mindset. The terrorist is pure evil, we are pure good, no need to clutter our minds with attempts to understand the motivations of the wicked other, no need to consider the century of abuse the West has inflicted on the Muslim people of the Middle East. Combine this with Harper's predilection for war and he morphs into his Churchill persona, simply being himself, with political expediency as a bonus.

23 December 2014

Americans OK with torture

The Pew Research Centre recently released the results of a survey of Americans about the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation practices, a report which revealed the agency has engaged in torture. One might expect that the citizens of a nation known for its attention to civil rights would strongly censure crimes against both human decency and the law. One would be disappointed.

The survey indicated that over half of Americans believed the CIA's methods were justified while only 29 per cent said they were not. Furthermore, 56 per cent believe the methods provided intelligence that helped prevent terrorist attacks, even though the report stated they didn't. Also disappointing was that as many respondents said it was wrong to release the report as those who said it was right. There are truths that some people just don't want to know, or want anybody else to know.

Perhaps we should not be surprised that so many Americans are comfortable with torture. After all, they accepted segregation, with all its brutal violation of human rights, up until midway into the last century, all the while claiming to be the land where all men are created equal. And a frightened people will be inclined to sacrifice their principles for expediency.

Americans are in this respect no different than anyone else, no better, no worse. The struggle for human rights, whether to end slavery, to emancipate women, to achieve equality for minorities and gays, has always been the responsibility of progressives struggling in a sea of complacency or outright opposition, ultimately winning over most of the populace but often only after a very long time. Supporters of human dignity are often a minority.

Unfortunately, even President Obama, although expressing his distaste for such behaviour and declaring it un-American, doesn't appear to have the political courage to prosecute the culprits. He claims he wants to look forward, not back, a sentiment he might more constructively apply to Edward Snowden. Presidents it seems, from Nixon to Reagan to Bush, and in the latter case at least some key subordinates, are above the rule of law. And that's pretty disappointing, too.

17 December 2014

Bravo to Baird and Harper on the Cuba file

The United States has finally come to its senses and is normalizing relations with Cuba. It's taken over half a century but—to borrow the old cliché—better late than never. And to our credit, Canada played a key role. By hosting meetings of officials from the two countries, we obviated the need for meetings in either the U.S. or Cuba. Both U.S. President Obama and Cuban President Castro have expressed their appreciation for our efforts.

What prompted the American decision to rid itself of this ridiculous cold war relic is hard to say but no doubt it was helped along by the newly independent attitude of South American nations. They have increasingly elected governments willing to stand up to American hegemony and take approaches more independent of the American model in both their domestic and international affairs. This includes maintaining close relationships with Cuba. If the U.S. wants to retain a leadership role in the hemisphere, it will have to accommodate itself to this new reality.

In any case, Canada has done well in helping to bring the two antagonists together. As NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar said, as he thanked Canada's diplomatic corps for their hard work on the file, “This is what diplomacy looks like—and Canada is very good at it." It is indeed. We were long known as an honest broker, a reputation that has suffered under the Harper regime. With this achievement, some of our credibility has been regained and will serve us well in the hemisphere and elsewhere. I rarely find cause to congratulate Messrs. Baird and Harper on their foreign policy, but I don't hesitate to offer kudos on this occasion.