Monday, April 30, 2012

Has Wal-Mart stubbed it gigantic hubristic toes in Mexico? We hope so!

By Stephanie Clifford and Steven Greenhouse,New York Times, April 29, 2012
In Los Angeles, a Wal-Mart building permit is getting a once-over. In New York, the City Council is investigating a possible land deal with the retailer’s developer in Brooklyn. A state senator in California is pushing for a formal audit of a proposed Wal-Mart in San Diego. And in Boston and its suburbs, residents are pressuring politicians to disclose whether they have received contributions from the company.
Wal-Mart has worked hard in recent years to polish its reputation and give elected officials, community groups and shoppers a reason to say yes to their stores, especially as it pushes aggressively into big — and historically hostile — cities. Now, the revelation of a bribery scandal involving the retailer’s Mexican subsidiary is giving critics a new reason to say no.
“Overnight, the environment has shifted in terms of Wal-Mart’s strategy in big cities, in winning over local politicians,” said Dorian T. Warren, a political science professor at Columbia who is writing a book about Wal-Mart’s efforts to expand into Chicago and Los Angeles.
The New York Times disclosed last week that Wal-Mart had found credible evidence that its Mexican subsidiary — the retailer’s biggest foreign operation, which opened 431 stores last year — had paid bribes and that an internal inquiry into the matter had been suppressed at corporate headquarters in Arkansas. The Mexican government has begun investigations into the retailer’s dealings with local officials.
Felipe Calderón, the Mexican president, said last week that he was “indignant” about the company’s behavior, and some elected officials across the United States joined the chorus of outrage. In other countries where Wal-Mart operates, including China and India, the reaction was slower, but analysts said they expected the company to face significant new obstacles.
Wal-Mart last week took several steps intended to demonstrate it was serious about getting to the bottom of the bribery scandal — and preventing anything like it happening again — but the damage from the revelations could be problematic, analysts said.
“It gives more power to critics, and that might prove to be the biggest negative of all,” said David Strasser, an analyst with Janney Montgomery Scott.
In the United States, Wal-Mart has largely exhausted places in suburban and rural areas to build new stores, and is focusing on many of the nation’s biggest cities. That means a lot of red tape for approvals. In the last few years, Wal-Mart has smoothed the way with donations to politicians and local nonprofit organizations, and arguments that it helps economic growth and provides healthy groceries.
Steven Restivo, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said the bribery investigation would not affect those expansion plans. “We remain committed to opening stores all across the U.S., including large cities,” he said.
There has always been opposition to the new stores — for years, small store owners, for example, complained they would be put out of business by Wal-Mart’s low prices — but the scandal in Mexico has provided opponents with new ammunition.
Union leaders, who have been particularly critical of Wal-Mart’s workplace practices, called last week for the resignation of the chairman, S. Robson Walton, and the chief executive, Michael T. Duke. “The corruption scandal and reported cover-up exposed an unacceptable failure of leadership within Wal-Mart,” said Joe Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

Hedges: Welcome to the Asylum...a must read!

By Chris Hedges, from, April 30, 2012
When civilizations start to die they go insane. Let the ice sheets in the Arctic melt. Let the temperatures rise. Let the air, soil and water be poisoned. Let the forests die. Let the seas be emptied of life. Let one useless war after another be waged. Let the masses be thrust into extreme poverty and left without jobs while the elites, drunk on hedonism, accumulate vast fortunes through exploitation, speculation, fraud and theft. Reality, at the end, gets unplugged. We live in an age when news consists of Snooki’s pregnancy, Hulk Hogan’s sex tape and Kim Kardashian’s denial that she is the naked woman cooking eggs in a photo circulating on the Internet. Politicians, including presidents, appear on late night comedy shows to do gags and they campaign on issues such as creating a moon colony. “[A]t times when the page is turning,” Louis-Ferdinand Celine wrote in “Castle to Castle,” “when History brings all the nuts together, opens its Epic Dance Halls! hats and heads in the whirlwind! Panties overboard!”
The quest by a bankrupt elite in the final days of empire to accumulate greater and greater wealth, as Karl Marx observed, is modern society’s version of primitive fetishism. This quest, as there is less and less to exploit, leads to mounting repression, increased human suffering, a collapse of infrastructure and, finally, collective death. It is the self-deluded, those on Wall Street or among the political elite, those who entertain and inform us, those who lack the capacity to question the lusts that will ensure our self-annihilation, who are held up as exemplars of intelligence, success and progress. The World Health Organization calculates that one in four people in the United States suffers from chronic anxiety, a mood disorder or depression—which seems to me to be a normal reaction to our march toward collective suicide. Welcome to the asylum.
When the most basic elements that sustain life are reduced to a cash product, life has no intrinsic value. The extinguishing of “primitive” societies, those that were defined by animism and mysticism, those that celebrated ambiguity and mystery, those that respected the centrality of the human imagination, removed the only ideological counterweight to a self-devouring capitalist ideology. Those who held on to pre-modern beliefs, such as Native Americans, who structured themselves around a communal life and self-sacrifice rather than hoarding and wage exploitation, could not be accommodated within the ethic of capitalist exploitation, the cult of the self and the lust for imperial expansion. The prosaic was pitted against the allegorical. And as we race toward the collapse of the planet’s ecosystem we must restore this older vision of life if we are to survive.
The war on the Native Americans, like the wars waged by colonialists around the globe, was waged to eradicate not only a people but a competing ethic. The older form of human community was antithetical and hostile to capitalism, the primacy of the technological state and the demands of empire. This struggle between belief systems was not lost on Marx. “The Ethnological Notebooks of Karl Marx” is a series of observations derived from Marx’s reading of works by historians and anthropologists. He took notes about the traditions, practices, social structure, economic systems and beliefs of numerous indigenous cultures targeted for destruction. Marx noted arcane details about the formation of Native American society, but also that “lands [were] owned by the tribes in common, while tenement-houses [were] owned jointly by their occupants.” He wrote of the Aztecs, “Commune tenure of lands; Life in large households composed of a number of related families.” He went on, “… reasons for believing they practiced communism in living in the household.” Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, provided the governing model for the union of the American colonies, and also proved vital to Marx and Engel’s vision of communism.
Marx, though he placed a naive faith in the power of the state to create his workers’ utopia and discounted important social and cultural forces outside of economics, was acutely aware that something essential to human dignity and independence had been lost with the destruction of pre-modern societies. The Iroquois Council of the Gens, where Indians came together to be heard as ancient Athenians did, was, Marx noted, a “democratic assembly where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it.” Marx lauded the active participation of women in tribal affairs, writing, “The women [were] allowed to express their wishes and opinions through an orator of their own election. Decision given by the Council. Unanimity was a fundamental law of its action among the Iroquois.” European women on the Continent and in the colonies had no equivalent power.
Rebuilding this older vision of community, one based on cooperation rather than exploitation, will be as important to our survival as changing our patterns of consumption, growing food locally and ending our dependence on fossil fuels. The pre-modern societies of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse—although they were not always idyllic and performed acts of cruelty including the mutilation, torture and execution of captives—did not subordinate the sacred to the technical. The deities they worshipped were not outside of or separate from nature.
Seventeenth century European philosophy and the Enlightenment, meanwhile, exalted the separation of human beings from the natural world, a belief also embraced by the Bible. The natural world, along with those pre-modern cultures that lived in harmony with it, was seen by the industrial society of the Enlightenment as worthy only of exploitation. Descartes argued, for example, that the fullest exploitation of matter to any use was the duty of humankind. The wilderness became, in the religious language of the Puritans, satanic. It had to be Christianized and subdued. The implantation of the technical order resulted, as Richard Slotkin writes in “Regeneration Through Violence,” in the primacy of “the western man-on-the-make, the speculator, and the wildcat banker.” Davy Crockett and, later, George Armstrong Custer, Slotkin notes, became “national heroes by defining national aspiration in terms of so many bears destroyed, so much land preempted, so many trees hacked down, so many Indians and Mexicans dead in the dust.”

The demented project of endless capitalist expansion, profligate consumption, senseless exploitation and industrial growth is now imploding. Corporate hustlers are as blind to the ramifications of their self-destructive fury as were Custer, the gold speculators and the railroad magnates. They seized Indian land, killed off its inhabitants, slaughtered the buffalo herds and cut down the forests. Their heirs wage war throughout the Middle East, pollute the seas and water systems, foul the air and soil and gamble with commodities as half the globe sinks into abject poverty and misery. The Book of Revelation defines this single-minded drive for profit as handing over authority to the “beast.”
The conflation of technological advancement with human progress leads to self-worship. Reason makes possible the calculations, science and technological advances of industrial civilization, but reason does not connect us with the forces of life. A society that loses the capacity for the sacred, that lacks the power of human imagination, that cannot practice empathy, ultimately ensures its own destruction. The Native Americans understood there are powers and forces we can never control and must honor. They knew, as did the ancient Greeks, that hubris is the deadliest curse of the human race. This is a lesson that we will probably have to learn for ourselves at the cost of tremendous suffering.
In William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” Prospero is stranded on an island where he becomes the undisputed lord and master. He enslaves the primitive “monster” Caliban. He employs the magical sources of power embodied in the spirit Ariel, who is of fire and air. The forces unleashed in the island’s wilderness, Shakespeare knew, could prompt us to good if we had the capacity for self-control and reverence. But it also could push us toward monstrous evil since there are few constraints to thwart plunder, rape, murder, greed and power. Later, Joseph Conrad, in his portraits of the outposts of empire, also would expose the same intoxication with barbarity.
The anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, who in 1846 was “adopted” by the Seneca, one of the tribes belonging to the Iroquois confederation, wrote in “Ancient Society” about social evolution among American Indians. Marx noted approvingly, in his “Ethnological Notebooks,” Morgan’s insistence on the historical and social importance of “imagination, that great faculty so largely contributing to the elevation of mankind.” Imagination, as the Shakespearean scholar Harold C. Goddard pointed out, “is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two. ... Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets.”
All that concerns itself with beauty and truth, with those forces that have the power to transform us, are being steadily extinguished by our corporate state. Art. Education. Literature. Music. Theater. Dance. Poetry. Philosophy. Religion. Journalism. None of these disciplines are worthy in the corporate state of support or compensation. These are pursuits that, even in our universities, are condemned as impractical. But it is only through the impractical, through that which can empower our imagination, that we will be rescued as a species. The prosaic world of news events, the collection of scientific and factual data, stock market statistics and the sterile recording of deeds as history do not permit us to understand the elemental speech of imagination. We will never penetrate the mystery of creation, or the meaning of existence, if we do not recover this older language. Poetry shows a man his soul, Goddard wrote, “as a looking glass does his face.” And it is our souls that the culture of imperialism, business and technology seeks to crush. Walter Benjamin argued that capitalism is not only a formation “conditioned by religion,” but is an “essentially religious phenomenon,” albeit one that no longer seeks to connect humans with the mysterious forces of life. Capitalism, as Benjamin observed, called on human societies to embark on a ceaseless and futile quest for money and goods. This quest, he warned, perpetuates a culture dominated by guilt, a sense of inadequacy and self-loathing. It enslaves nearly all its adherents through wages, subservience to the commodity culture and debt peonage. The suffering visited on Native Americans, once Western expansion was complete, was soon endured by others, in Cuba, the Philippines, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The final chapter of this sad experiment in human history will see us sacrificed as those on the outer reaches of empire were sacrificed. There is a kind of justice to this. We profited as a nation from this demented vision, we remained passive and silent when we should have denounced the crimes committed in our name, and now that the game is up we all go down together.

Wente: Professional class bubble bursting...about time!

By Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail April 28, 2012
If you’re a smart kid who wants to work hard and do well, one path to success has always been clear. You went to university, then chose a high-status profession and got your ticket punched. Law and medicine were tops. Six-figure incomes, nice houses and private ski clubs were all but guaranteed. If you were less bookish but had good sales skills, you could go into real estate, rack up huge commissions in a booming market and buy yourself a shiny BMW in no time.

Those days are over. The Great Reset has hit the professional classes too. Young professionals are facing a painful double squeeze. The cost of a degree has gone way up, and the economic benefit it confers has gone way down. Think twice before you encourage your daughter to go to law or med school, especially if she’ll have to borrow heavily to do it. On top of that, these young professionals are starting their working lives later than ever before. By the time they are credentialed and hit the work force, they’re in their early 30s.

“There’s a real disconnect between the perception and the reality,” says one senior lawyer. “You have to be pretty creative when you’re thinking of law as a career choice.” Translation: If you think you’re going to land a $100,000 starting job on Bay Street, you’d better have Plan B. It’s more realistic to aim for association or government work – where salaries are a lot lower. (By the way, you’ll have to do your articling in Sudbury.) And even if you start out in the big time, the ladder to partnership is being pulled up. These days, it can take 10 years to become an equity partner in a major firm – if you make it. Most don’t.
Meantime, law-school tuitions have soared (the University of Toronto charges $25,000) and the competition to get in is ferocious. Three years of undergraduate work doesn’t cut it any more. Today, you’d better have an advanced degree (or two) if you want to get into a top school. All this adds up to more time in school and more debt. By the time your daughter is called to the bar, she may have $80,000 or more in debt, with income prospects that are far lower than she expected.
In the United States, where law schools are churning out two graduates for every job, the law-school bubble has become a dramatic bust. The situation is better here, but the big trends are the same. In Ontario, hundreds of articling students can’t find spots. Top earners at top firms are making more than ever, but everybody else is treading water. More and more lawyers are being treated as commodity service providers, and they’re being squeezed for volume discounts. Some are already being forced to compete with legal outsourcing firms (India does it cheaper) and computer technology, which can now perform sophisticated document searches more efficiently than human beings.
You’d think medicine would be better. After all, we can’t outsource brain surgery. And the demand for medicine – unlike the demand for legal services – is booming.
But young doctors face the same squeeze as young lawyers. Like law school, medical school is so competitive that today’s students need advanced training and graduate degrees in order to get in. By the time they qualify as doctors, they’re well into their 30s, with $180,000 in debt. And the expectations of medical students are also disconnected from reality.
The trouble is that doctors have just one big client – government – whose ability and willingness to pay is shrinking fast. The booming consumer demand for medicine doesn’t necessarily translate into jobs. Even though hospitals need extra surgeons, they aren’t hiring them because they can’t afford to expand operating-room time. Of all the general surgeons who finished medical school at the University of Toronto in the past two years, only 15 per cent have found work. The rest are pursuing further training, in hopes that something will eventually open up.
Yet in spite of all this higher training, doctors’ incomes, too, are heading down. Ontario has just announced a freeze on total funding for doctors, which means that new doctors will have to share the pot with existing ones. The Ontario Medical Association figures that over the next four years, the freeze will mean a total pay cut of 16 per cent. Another problem with the job market is that older doctors – like older lawyers – aren’t retiring. Their retirement savings have been hammered. They can’t afford to.
Oh well. There’s always real estate – isn’t there? Don’t count on it. The residential real estate cartel is long overdue for breakup. One of these days, real estate agents will go the way of travel agents and full-service brokers. The only reason they’ve been able to suck such high commissions from the pockets of consumers for so long is their ability to control access to the MLS. That has finally begun to change. Now Power Corp. has bought up a bunch of do-it-yourself real estate services and folded them together into an outfit called ComFree, whose clients can list their houses on MLS. ComFree is barely on the radar screen in most of the country. But it has captured a third of the market in Quebec City.
Old-line real estate agents should enjoy their Beemers while they can. And students who are thinking of becoming doctors or lawyers shouldn’t count on driving one. The professional classes can’t escape the gales of change that are ripping through society. They’ll adapt. But they’ll never be so comfortable again.
One can only hope that a return to Liberal  Arts studies will follow the apparent bursting of the professional class bubble. It is long overdue.
Chasing a BMW, the proverbial archetype for the hustlers, was never a legitimate goal for those with any brains. In another lifetime, it used to be said of female college students that they were there more in search of an MRS than a BA. Universities, too, could do well to return to the pursuit of truth and wisdom, rather than creaming the top of the bottle of talent to train their enrollees as "practitioners"...
We need thinkers, and eccentrics, and poets and playwrights and historians and social critics and the only place they will come from will be those universities dedicated to their generation.
And medical schools and law schools, and business schools, for all their panache, will never generate graduates who are even thinking about how to make fundamental change to the way we do things.
Thankfully, the bloom is off this "faux rose" as it should be. It is the one benefit to high student debt, amidst a sea of bad outcomes, that the number of these professional class graduates is likely to decline, and along with that decline will be the influence of their social and political class, and along with that decline, just possibly we could see another generation of arts graduates, although our worship at the altar of science continues unabated.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Nigerian Christians murdered this the work of Boko Haran?

Salisu Rabiu And Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press in Globe and Mail, April 29, 2012
KANO, Nigeria
Christians at worship came under deadly attack on Sunday in Kenya and Nigeria, and initial suspicion fell on radical Islamist groups.

The deadliest attack targeted an old section of Bayero University's campus in the city of Kano where churches hold Sunday services, with gunmen killing at least 16 people and wounding at least 22 others, according to the Nigerian Red Cross.
A later attack in the northeast city of Maiduguri saw gunmen open fire at a Church of Christ in Nigeria chapel, killing five people, including a pastor preparing for Communion, witnesses said.

No group immediately claimed responsibility, but the attacks bore similarities to others carried by a radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram.
The Bayero University attack occurred around an old theatre and lecture halls where local churches hold services, according to Kano state police commissioner Ibrahim Idris, who also said the gunmen rode into the campus on motorcycles, then threw small explosives made out of soda cans around the area.
No group immediately claimed responsibility. However, Mr. Idris said the attackers used small explosives packed inside of aluminum soda cans for the assault, a method previously used by Boko Haram.
Boko Haram is waging a growing sectarian battle with Nigeria’s weak central government, using suicide car bombs and assault rifles in attacks across the country’s predominantly Muslim north and around its capital Abuja. Those killed have included Christians, Muslims and government officials. The sect has been blamed for killing more than 450 people this year alone, according to an Associated Press count.
The city of Maiduguri, the target of second Nigerian attack, is where Boko Haram once had its main mosque. Witnesses who declined to give their names out of fear the sect would target them said the gunmen stormed into the service there and began firing. Most escaped, though as people came out of hiding later they found the pastor dead in a pool of blood in the sanctuary, witnesses said. Four other worshippers died in the attack, they said.
In January, a co-ordinated assault on government buildings and other sites in Kano by Boko Haram killed at least 185 people. In the time since, the sect has been blamed for attacking police stations and carrying out smaller assaults in the city.
On Thursday, the sect carried out a suicide car bombing at the Abuja offices of the influential newspaper ThisDay and a bombing at an office building it shared with other publications in the city of Kaduna. At least seven people were killed in those attacks.
In Kenya, meanwhile, a man set off a grenade during a church service in Nairobi, sowing chaos and killing one worshipper.
Police said at least one person died and 15 were injured. Nairobi has been hit by a series of unclaimed blasts since late 2011, which Kenyan officials have blamed on Somalia’s al-Qaeda-linked Shebab Islamists.
In March, grenade explosions at one of the main bus stations in Kenya’s capital killed nine people and wounded 40 others, the deadliest in the series of attacks.
Al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabab militants from neighbouring Somalia have vowed to carry out a major attack on Kenya for sending troops in.
Are the people responsible for these atrocities so stupid and vicious not to know or care that their actions are being broadcast instantly around the world, where they will be read/heard/watched and digested by anyone interested, and these attacks will redound on Muslims, whether radical or not, in retaliation.
These thugs, whoever they are, are sustaining the contempt that rational people have for their attitudes, beliefs, actions and their reliance on murder of the innocents as their political weapon of choice, apparently obvious to the ramifications their acts will have on their own faith community.
While all Muslims cannot and must not be "tarred" with the same brush as these radical terrorists, attempts to build bridges around the world, between faith communities, including Islam, Judaism and Christianity, not to mention the plethora of other faiths, will be more difficult so long as these cowardly, heinous and murderous acts continue. And the target groups seem to be quite well defined, so that the 'enemy' of these terrorists is not only political, but religious.
Since 9-11, Muslims in the west have had a more difficult time achieving and receiving respect from other faith communities, and non-religious groups as well. We all hear the sermons of political leaders attempting to restrain and restrict any act of revenge, or any hate crimes, against all religious communities, including both synagogues and mosques, yet we all know that they are continuing.
Killing another person for the faith s/he holds, no matter how it might be connected to some ancillary political agenda, is nevertheless, an act of hate, a crime of hate.
Not only must those responsible be punished, their terrorist groups must be rooted out and destroyed; however, with the attention still being paid to the high profile Al Qaeda threats in place like Yemen, attacks like these in Africa, apparently by Boko Haran, get less media attention in the west.
Will our grandchildren and their children, in decades to come, have to contend with this cancer that continues to metastasize randomly and rapidly under most of the radar of public notice, and will all Christians and Jews become targets for the hate and the compulsion that drive the perpetrators of these crimes against humanity even though there is no formal declaration of war?

Ibbitson: "Harper will leave Canada divided as never before"

By John Ibbitson, Globe and Mail, April 29, 2012
But however long he serves, by the time Mr. Harper leaves, the country will be a very different place.

It will be divided as never before between left and right, progressive and conservative, east and west, decline and growth. Politics will become – has already become – a clash of irreconcilable values, of stark choices, with the voters forced to choose.
The story so far
In the past 12 months, the Conservatives have:
•enacted an omnibus crime bill that, among a host of other changes, increases sentences for many crimes, especially those involving drugs or sex.
•formally withdrawn Canada from the Kyoto protocol on global warming, claiming the standards set by the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien could not be met.
•launched investigations into what it calls “environmental and other radical groups,” some of them foreign-funded, claiming they are determined to sabotage the Conservative plan of exploiting natural resources to grow the economy. Many environmental assessments are being handed to the provinces.
As well, the March 29 budget cut program spending and reduced the size of the public service by almost 20,000 positions. The qualification age for the old age security retirement benefit will gradually rise from 65 to 67. Refugee claimants from developed countries will be given speedy assessments and in most cases sent back. Workers on unemployment insurance who don't apply for jobs currently being filled by foreign temporary workers could lose their benefits.
In December, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced a multi-year funding formula for health transfers to the provinces that largely removed Ottawa from its role in promoting a national public health-care system.
These and other changes delivered a one-two punch, greatly diminishing the federal footprint in programs Ottawa shares with the provinces, while cutting back spending in areas within its own jurisdiction.
All this has left some worried about what will be left when the Conservatives are through.
Alex Himelfarb was Clerk of the Privy Council – head of the federal bureaucracy – under Mr. Chrétien and his successor, Paul Martin. He caused a stir with a recent blog post lamenting what he calls “the dismantling of the progressive state.”
“The consequences of such a shift are never immediate or obvious; they are subtle and slow burning, inevitably hitting the most vulnerable first and hardest ... ” he wrote.
“If we want to imagine the consequences of crushing the progressive state ... we might want to have a look at the twenties and thirties, a time of massive inequality and personal vulnerability which presaged the Great Depression.”
In an interview, Mr. Himelfarb said that he believes the cuts are too deep: “We need to raise taxes to the extent necessary to protect and renew key services and meet our economic, social and environmental challenges.”
Canadians “were told that tax cuts are a free good,” he adds. “They are not.”
Mr. Himelfarb stresses that he does not believe the Conservatives are implementing some hidden agenda. “They said they were going to do this, and they did it. There is nothing hidden about it.”
He is right. It has been almost a decade since Mr. Harper laid out a strategy that has truly begun to take shape only in the past 12 months
It is his exclusively social and fiscal conservatism, linked intimately with his contempt for anything that smacks of the contributions of any previous Liberal government almost as if it had done irreparable damage to the country he interited as Prime Minister, and his combative, even obsessive, compulsion for destroying the opposition that combine, in our view, to generate not only policies that divide but a government and a culture that favours his base, his constituency and his financial benefactors, at the expense of the rest of the people in the country.
In fact, there is considerable evidence, that as a policy wonk, Harper is blind both to individual people and to human needs generally, preferring the abstractions of policy and how to stick-handle his bills through the commons and the public, with the most strictly administered and limited of talking points, memorized and delivered by whomever he designates as today's voice and face of the government. He is 'guiseppi' to his "pinochio" members, who mouth his script, imitate his petulance and his occasional fawning, distract his critics with wild and spurious charges, in a counter-offensive designed to obliterate any criticism, even the most thoughtful and sensible. It is almost as if the political stragegy and tactic favoured by the government is to provide the most memorable and ridiculous sound bite, as the thing remembered by any audience, rather than the spurious content of any government proposal. In that unsubtle camouflage, he perhaps hopes to mask his intentions, and take his chances with the short and rather skimpy memory of Canadians, most of whom are not paying close attention to the details of the government's actions and its long-term agenda.
Like the character Sam Slick in Thomas Haliburton's Clockmaker Series, Harper has mastered the cunning of the salesman, using whatever 'tricks' it takes to sell his policies, (not clocks) and without either whimsy or laughter. This man is, in his public persona, empty of wit, empty of compassion, and empty of the nuances of both power and culture, and his leaving cannot come soon enough for the 99% about whom he could care less, in spite of the government's chanting "jobs, jobs, jobs" as their political mantra.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A global crisis? We need homes.. new thinking, and a new tax?

By Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, April 28, 2012
“It used to be easy for a young couple to find a place to live. But this new generation is coming of age without access to decent housing. Even if they get a good job, they’re priced out of the market, forced to live as adults with their parents, or settle with cramped living conditions.”

Does that sound familiar? It should. In recent weeks, I’ve heard people utter almost exactly these sentences about their neighbourhoods in Washington, in Beijing, in Nairobi, in London, in Mumbai and in Toronto.

If there is a global problem, this is it: There is not enough housing, to rent or to buy, at a price that people with decent but ordinary employment can afford.
We have come to think of this as a natural state of affairs. In fact, it makes no sense at all: Housing is a basic, easy-to-create amenity. If there is a large demand, and people are willing to pay, shouldn’t there be plenty of people who want to make a buck by creating it? It should be one of the world’s more basic markets.
But it isn’t. Here in London, there will be 374,000 new households over the next few years chasing only 214,000 new housing units. In Toronto, there were 9,000 vacant rental units in 2010, and around 70,000 households in the market for one. In Beijing, average apartments now cost 27 times the average salary. People, for some reason, don’t want to go into the housing business.
Mind you, people do want to go into the real-estate business: The buying and selling of property is a red-hot market in most countries. It’s just that people don’t want to put more housing on that land.
We have come to see property as a portfolio investment rather than as a basic amenity. So for those previous-generation middle-class people (like me) who do own homes, a market failure looks like a gift.
“Every time house prices fall, the national newspapers say there is a housing crisis,” says Alan Gilbert, a housing-policy specialist at the University College of London. “I would argue otherwise – the housing situation is better when house prices are stable or falling – because that means that demand is being outstripped by supply.”
I met Dr. Gilbert at an Oxford University summit on the housing shortage. What’s most interesting is that the housing crises in places like Kenya and those in places like Canada have the same basic causes.
Those fast-rising (and occasionally fast-falling) property values are a big root cause. After being burned in the subprime crisis, banks are wary to lend to new home buyers – it’s hard in North America and Europe, even harder in China, where you can only borrow 50 per cent of a home’s value, and you have to be rich; it’s almost impossible in Africa. I was told that the governor of the Bank of Kenya isn’t paid enough to get a mortgage in Africa.
Worse, banks are even more wary to lend to people wanting to build any but the most expensive rental-housing projects. That’s because property values rise so fast that the project’s rent-based business model might not make sense after a few years. And there are rarely government incentives (such as tax breaks) to create equity-financed rental housing, which should be a priority.
Governments seem supremely uninterested in making the creation of housing a desirable pursuit. We’re clogged with zoning policies, rent-control laws, minimum-frontage restrictions, planning requirements – none of which do any good – and, most of all, a shocking fiscal bias toward existing owners.
If we really wanted housing to be profitable and plentiful, we’d tax owners on the annual rise in value of their property – a Land Value Tax. This has two benefits: First, you’re taxing a non-productive source of wealth, whereas income and corporate taxes can stifle innovation and risk-taking.

Second, because buyers and sellers know the tax exists, property values stop rising quickly. This makes it easier for newcomers to enter the property market, and for homeowners to buy and sell based on the desirability of housing.
It also means that investors make their profits from land not by pocketing its increase, but by improving its income value – collecting rent, increasing the quantity or quality of housing on it, pressuring government to allow better or more intensive use of the land.
When people can live fairly well, in large numbers, close to their places of work, the economy functions far better. When a few of us are making useless paper profits from our homes and the rest are stuck outside the market, it hurts everyone.
"If there is a global problem, this is it: There is not enough housing, to rent or to buy, at a price that people with decent but ordinary employment can afford."
Let's look at some of the perhaps obvious reasons.
We, as a culture, favour our past over a different future because we know we it was, and we are uncertain about how change will unfold.
We also, in that mind-set, favour the rich over the poor, as part of that past, and even increasingly permit the rich to purchase power from the political operatives, without considering how we might push back.
We also have an archetype about land, as a source of investment, and we generate both regulations and restrictions, as our way of demonstrating our "planning" capacity, making political players think and believe that they are "protecting" the investment of those who already own land, and do not want anything to bruise the potential value of that land. Really we are "gate-keeping" for the have's (those owning homes) while keeping the "have-not's" out of our "sanctuaries"...gated or not.
We, as a culture, feel and believe that we have little or no influence on national or provincial political agendas and land-use is the responsibility of local legislators, who are closest to the developers whose history of development and whose political contributions keep those political actors in office. New housing developments demonstrate "progress" to passing-by citizens between elections, as well as new tax revenue to the town and city councillors, while preserving the access of the developers to more land and more building, for those who can afford.
And as is very often the case, there is another very human ingredient at play here, not only the political ambition of the politicians, but the greed (private profit motive) of the developers, the real estate profession, the renovation industry, the furniture industry (Lowe's current sell line: "Always keep improving!" speaks to the built-in need to continually renovate) and it has become analogous to the fashion industry....changing colours, flooring, appliances and amenities to "improve your life-style and to increase the untaxed value of your dwelling for sales purposes. And like teens demanding the latest fashion shoes, we lemmingly fall in step with the "investment" and renovate and "growth" model of business as consumers to the point that the U.S. economy is now 75% driven by consumer spending.
There are slum landlords in every town and city, skimming high rent for low quality living accommodations, often at the expense of university and college students who are legitimately living 'away from home'. And there are rich investors making a 'killing' in profit terms, by renovating old and run-down premises, and flipping them to needy purchasers. In the U.S. in some markets, investment companies are consuming all those foreclosed properties, at a fraction of their original cost, throwing some paint and a few "cosmetics" at them, and flipping them at huge profit gains. And they are receiving the praise of the "opinionators" who are, themselves, caught up in the "recovery" metaphor, mind-set and political culture.
Ironically, it was the housing "bubble" that started the whole slide down the slippery slope of debt and deficit and recession in the first place, when wild-west-bandits saw a "legal" loophole to make a killing on the unsuspected, innocent and naive purchaser who needed a home, and wanted one they could not afford.
So while Mr. Saunders may be right, that housing is in short supply and needs a Land Value Tax, as a way of capping the over-heated, unregulated pursuit of profit, we have to collectively take action that breaks the incestuous relationship between money and politics in order to begin the process of even thinking about providing legitimate housing, at affordable cost, to the millions who are currently "barred" from the inn, as were those in a old and revered story, that we celebrate in December in the west.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Christopher Hitchens, atheist, memorialized in New York

By Aidan Johnson, Globe and Mail, April 27, 2012
Aidan Johnson is a lawyer.

Last week, Christopher Hitchens was memorialized in New York. The event raised a profound issue: how to “do” funerals for those of little faith, or none. The matter is of increasing importance as more and more people turn away from religion.

Hitch was an atheist writer. In his later career, he wrote a great deal about what he called “anti-theism,” the view that faith is anti-social. As a friend of Hitch’s, I was curious to see how his family would mark his life, given that view
Faith has always monopolized funerals. If you wanted a decent burial, the temple was the place to go, the shaman the man to pay. The arrival of scientific atheism in the 18th century only changed this somewhat. Many secularists continued to have religious funerals – for lack of other ritual, or for fear of sticking out.

The Hitch memorial solved this problem. The solution was to embrace a deeply personal truth of Hitch’s own: the idea that atheism must celebrate a secular trinity of love, human equality and art, just as much as it denies God. The celebration must feed the denial, and the denial the celebration. For Hitch, anyone who preferred denial of faith to celebration of life was merely nihilist and could not claim true fellowship with the godless.
The service took place at Cooper Union, the great 19th-century liberal arts school for adult students in Greenwich. As we entered the hall, we heard songs that reflected the dead man’s values: Steve Winwood’s Higher Love, Bob Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man, The Internationale (a nod to the Trotskyism that informed Hitch’s conservatism). Mourners read from his works: Sean Penn on Vietnam, Salman Rushdie on faith’s slander against pigs, Carol Blue (Hitch’s wife) on the good and the bad in Oscar Wilde.
The eulogies and excerpts dwelt on art for art’s sake. Martin Amis spoke on literature as that which brings meaning. Tangible beauty was everywhere, from portraits of the author as a youth and grown-up to the tailoring on Anna Wintour. The Vogue editor-in-chief wore a perfect cream suit (to a funeral!), thus manifesting Wildean ideals. Throughout, there were no fewer laughs than at church services of the relevant mode, and no fewer tears.
Religion was present, too. That was the most interesting part. Hitch’s brother read from St. Paul, on hope. Francis Collins, a devout Christian and former head scientist the Human Genome Project, admitted he was better at piano than speech. So he played a composition of his own, which he said was what his final conversation with Hitch had sounded like. They had spoken of an experimental gene therapy for cancer. Hitch had participated as a test subject, even though the protocol had come too late to save him. (He wanted to help.) Though he didn’t dwell on it, Mr. Collins suggested that the beautiful music came from God. Plainly, atheist funerals don’t mean exclusion of the faithful living.
But religion was perhaps most present in the memorial’s language. The readers spoke of spirit, transcendence, soul. These words are from faith. Their meaning is bound up with biblical poetry. Hitch’s great argument was that we must strive to see the sometimes hidden moral evil in those poems, going beyond them, to a beauty that lives much deeper. There, religion’s barbaric legacy can be stamped out so that love might flourish. Perfect execution of this may be impossible. (For Hitch, that fact necessitated “contempt for our own weakness.”) But like Robin Hood, we can steal faith’s gold, its unique terminology for some of the most mysterious human aspects.
I used to wonder whether an atheist funeral could really be spiritual. I don’t any more.

Smillie:Charles Taylor convicted of War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity

By Ian Smillie, Globe and Mail, April 27, 2012
Ian Smillie, an Ottawa-based consultant and writer, was the first witness at Charles Taylor’s trial. He is the author of Blood on the Stone: Greed, Corruption and War in the Global Diamond Trade.

In the sorry catalogue of African dictators, former Liberian warlord and president Charles Taylor stands out as one of the most ruthless. And now he has another distinction: He’s the first former head of state – African or otherwise – to be indicted, tried and found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Slobodan Milosevic died in The Hague before his trial ended. Indicted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has yet to face a judge. But Mr. Taylor went the full distance when his sentence was handed down on Thursday in The Hague by the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Getting to a verdict was far from simple. Mr. Taylor’s indictment was announced in 2003 while he was in Ghana attending “peace” negotiations. He scuttled back to Liberia, where he presided over one of the worst humanitarian calamities in a decade, before being forced into an ignominious Nigerian exile. When democratically elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked for his extradition in 2006, Mr. Taylor fled again. He was finally caught in a car full of cash, trying to cross the Nigerian border into Cameroon.

Mr. Taylor began his rampage in 1989. Over the next seven years, 150,000 Liberians died and more than 850,000 became refugees. This in a country that had only 2.1 million people in 1990. Mr. Taylor finally won a United Nations-brokered presidential election in 1997 because Liberians knew that if he didn’t, the mayhem would continue.
But none of that is why he was tried. He was indicted for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone by a gang of murderers who called themselves the Revolutionary United Front. The RUF was led by a psychopath named Foday Sankoh, who had trained with Mr. Taylor in happier times at Moammar Gadhafi’s school for terrorists in Benghazi. Later, from Liberia, Mr. Taylor backed the RUF with a base, a safe haven, training, weapons and instructions. And the RUF brought him something from Sierra Leone: diamonds.
Sierra Leone’s diamonds are among the best in the world and, for Mr. Taylor, they were an ideal way to pay for the weapons needed for his proxy wars across the region. Liberia, with almost no diamonds of its own, became one of the world’s most flagrant diamond laundries. Internationally, diamonds were completely unregulated at the time and, until an NGO – Partnership Africa Canada – exposed the numbers in 2000, it never occurred to anyone in the industry to question why as much as an astounding $2-billion a year worth of gems were making the trip from Liberia to Antwerp. Diamonds had become a guerrilla’s best friend.
The RUF said it was fighting for democracy, but it waged a war against civilians. It cleared the towns where they foraged – and the diamond fields – through a reign of terror, hacking off the hands and feet of women and children as a means of clearing the areas they wanted. If you saw Lord of War or Blood Diamond, you saw a seriously sanitized version of what actually happened during a conflict that lasted twice as long as the Second World War. The war in Sierra Leone was not about democracy or ethnicity or religion or remnant scraps from some Cold War contretemps; it was about power and the unbridled savagery of the drug-addled thugs who wanted it.
The Taylor trial has been criticized for being too long and too expensive. It began in January of 2008, and closing arguments were heard in March of 2011. It has taken the judges a year to reach their verdict. Mr. Taylor and his lawyers have argued that the witnesses who travelled to The Hague – many of them victims of the atrocities he fomented – were right-wing liars, left-wing liars, damned liars and racists. Some have argued that Mr. Taylor is a scapegoat, that he and the other dozen indictees – all now imprisoned after their own guilty verdicts – are the fall guys for a much wider group of players in the bloody criminal enterprise that took place in Sierra Leone.
But in a world where soldiers often claim they were only following orders, it’s a rare luxury to see one of those who gave the orders brought to justice. And in Africa, where so much cruelty is met with international indifference, where impunity is too often the order of the day for too many monsters, the Taylor trial and his conviction stand out as a landmark, and perhaps as a beacon of hope for a future in which justice can prevail.


Thursday, April 26, 2012

UPDATE!Canada: Notice to potential health care here unless you are a threat!

By Gloria Galloway, Globe and Mail, July 3, 2012
Doctors who treat refugees on a regular basis are taking issue with a federal decision to backtrack on cuts to health benefits for some asylum seekers but not others.

After defending its plan to eliminate supplemental health benefits for refugees, including payments for prescription drugs, vision care and dental coverage, the immigration department quietly rescinded the cuts last Friday – but only for people who are brought to Canada by the government through the Resettlement Assistance Program and for some victims of human smuggling.
While doctors praise the decision to keep the supplemental benefits in place for some refugees, they say all of the cuts to health-care benefits which took effect on June 30 should be rescinded.

Refugees sponsored by church groups and other humanitarian organizations, and those who arrive here seeking asylum after fleeing a country that Canada has deemed to be unsafe, are “out of luck,” Philip Berger, chief of family and community medicine at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said in a telephone interview. They will be entitled to medical health coverage “only if of an urgent or essential nature” – a proviso that was removed last week for government-sponsored refugees.
Other cuts to refugee health services will remain in place. Treatment under the Interim Federal Health Program will be denied to refugees who come from a country that Canada has declared to be safe, and to those whose claims have been rejected but are still living in Canada. The only exceptions will be cases in which a disease poses a risk to public health or safety.
Nicholas Keung, Toronto Star, April 25, 2012

 Ottawa will strip thousands of refugees of health-care coverage starting in July unless their conditions pose a threat to public health.
Critics called the move “mean-spirited” and warned that denial of health care could lead to unnecessary deaths.
“If this is what they are doing, there is no question that the application of this will result in people dying,” said lawyer Rick Goldman of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
Currently, all refugees are covered by the Interim Federal Health Program (IFHP), which provides basic health coverage, sometimes with supplementary services such as pharmaceutical care, dentistry, vision care and devices such as walkers and wheelchairs, if required.
As part of an overhaul of the asylum system that takes effects in July, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney will establish a “safe country” list and expedite the processing of claims from these countries.
The plan announced Wednesday stipulates that rejected claimants and refugees from designated countries won’t be eligible for health care unless their conditions put the public at risk. All refugees will also be stripped of supplemental health coverage.
Although Kenney has not revealed the safe country list, Mexico and Hungary, which are likely to be designated, accounted for more than 5,000 asylum claims in Canada last year.
“These reforms allow us to protect public health and safety, ensure that tax dollars are spent wisely and defend the integrity of our immigration system all at the same time,” Kenney said in a statement.
Ottawa spent $84.6 million on the refugee health program in 2011. The changes will save the government $100 million over five years.
With that oft-touted "majority government" this government is quite literally trampling on the very politicies and practices that made Canada a "safe harbour" for refugees from all over the world. There is a new sign over the Canadian ports of entry today, proudly claiming "we want only healthy, skilled and productive economic units" so our labour shortages will be filled with high quality individuals to whom we will pay bargain basement wages"....
Refugees that, in some cases would have included the "boat people" from Vietnam in the late 1970's who would only be classed as refugees, will not longer be granted similar protection in terms of health care, until they become settled with their own jobs.
That experiment, recently revisited in stories about the young woman who will proudly wrestle for Canada at the London Olympic Games this summer, the daughter of those same "boat people," very few, if any, of whom, were out of work virtually since the day they arrived.
This government is placating their corporate friends through streamlining the immigration process for those skilled and healthy workers whose Canadian employers will take advantage of in less than adequate incomes, while at the same time effectively closing the door to refugees whose health, in many cases because of their refugee status, is less than perfect.
Shut down Katimivak, close the health care for refugees, (unless that health risk is a danger to Canadians), throw thousands more into prisons for longer terms, close treatment facilities for prisoners with psychiatric conditions like the one in to house, educate and heal First Nations people in Attawapiskat and in dozens of other heinous living conditions on many reserves.....but be sure to spend $9 billion on fighter jets...and another $10 billion on new ships, both armed and unarmed....and another X billions on 2700 new prison cells....this is a government from Hell!
It is neither Canadian, in terms of loyalty to the Canadian traditions of compassion, and rehabilitation and openness nor is it one that can be proud of its eunuch-like approach to the environment.
Just another sign that, one hopes, Canadians will remember in 2015, when another federal election is called, so that enough X's will be marked for opposition candidates to turf the conservatives out.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

In Praise of Liberal Arts...and Dr. Graham one of its exemplar's

By Stanley Fish, New York Times, April 23, 2012
Stanley Fish is a professor of humanities and law at Florida International University, in Miami. In the Fall of 2011, he will be Oscar M. Ruebhausen Distinguished Senior Fellow and Visiting Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He has also taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Duke University and the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is the author of 13 books, most recently “How to Write a Sentence,” a celebration of sentence craft and sentence pleasure; “Save the World On Your Own Time”; and “The Fugitive in Flight,” a study of the 1960s TV drama.  His piece praises Andrew Delbanco's book, "College: What it was and What it Should Be"

Humanism has always been about imitation and the belief that if the song of virtue is sung well, listeners will be moved to join in. In “An Apology for Poetry” (1595), Philip Sidney asks (rhetorically), “Who readeth Aeneas carrying old Anchises on his back that wisheth not it were his fortune to perform so excellent an act?” Delbanco recalls the effect the art historian Meyer Schapiro had on students “as he spoke about Cezanne”; they would say, “Whatever he’s smoking, I’ll have some.” I recall the Renaissance scholar Jackson Cope telling me the story of how, just out of the Navy, a street kid from Chicago, he wandered into a class on iconography and emblems taught by the great Don Cameron Allen at the University of Illinois. I didn’t know what he was talking about, Cope said, but, he added, I did know that I wanted some of that.

Fortunately, for many of us, we have been privileged to be in a room where the professor spoke so eloquently and eruditely that "although we did not know what he was talking about, we wanted some of that."
My path, in first, second and final year of undergraduate study offered me the privilege of being a little mind, from a little town, in a classroom with such a professor. In first year, I had no idea what he was talking about for at least six weeks, as he introduced English Literature to his class of some forty or fifty "children" for that is what we were, and at least in my perception, I had finally 'met' Pericles..or at least his Canadian great-grandchild.
John Wichello Graham, a doctoral graduate from the University of Toronto, under the tutelage of Northrup Frye, had written his doctoral thesis on Virginia Wolfe at twenty-four, and fortunately for the University of Western Ontario, had chosen that university to begin, to sustain and to finish his teaching career.
And our paths crossed so many decades ago that, on the calendar, the pages have grown yellow yet in my mind's eye, it was only yesterday that I was so privileged.
His mind, his vocabulary, his breadth of comparisons, his true scholarship walked into the classroom every time he entered; he simply could not restrain those traits, and they were poured out in generous abundance, so committed was his career to the teaching of these young, impressionable and sponge-like minds.
Even twenty-five years later, when I happened back on campus of a summer afternoon, when there was no one around anywhere, and I ventured down those halls of University College, seeking to find his name on a door, and knocked, his voice invited me in to a conversation I could never have dreamed would ever take place.
Nearing the end of his formal career, he still had the passion, and the control and the discipline and the commitment to the pursuit of truth, through everything he read, reflected upon and shared with those of us whose minds he attempted to penetrate and to shape, and his contribution to literature and to learning and to the liberal arts will never fully be measured...reaching as it does the unmeasureable in so many ways.
Thanks, Dr. Graham, for just being who you are, and for sharing that with so many.
Now I know what others mean when they say, " I am honoured and privileged to walk on the shoulders of giants!" Your shoulders have sustained me in so many times and has your model of being human being.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Ignatieff: Quebec likely to separate..sadly, it could be true

The Canadian Preess, in Globe and Mail, April 23, 2012
(In an interview with the BBC) Mr. Ignatieff (former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada) pointed to Canada's experience with the Quebec sovereignty movement; he said Canada reacted by transferring power to Quebec to satisfy its growing aspirations for autonomy – but he suggested that situation is only temporary.

“It's a kind of way station – you stop there for a while,” Mr. Ignatieff said.
“But I think the logic, eventually, is independence. Full independence.”
Asked by his Scottish interviewer whether he was talking about independence for both Quebec and Scotland, Mr. Ignatieff replied: “I think, eventually, that's where it goes.”
After leading the Liberals to a historic defeat in the May 2, 2011, federal election, the longtime journalist and academic returned to a teaching job at the University of Toronto.
In that election, Quebec actually abandoned the separatist Bloc Quebecois – but since then there has been a revival of nationalist fortunes in the province, with the Parti Quebecois now flying high in the polls at the provincial level.
Mr. Ignatieff says he's saddened to see how Canada and Quebec have become isolated, with the optimism of decades past having given way to disillusionment.
“The problem here is we don't have anything to say to each other anymore,” he said. “There's a kind of contract of mutual indifference, which is very striking for someone of my generation.”
It wasn't always this way, he told his British audience.
When he was younger, Mr. Ignatieff suggested, Quebec played a central role in the Canadian identity.
“I can't think of this country without Quebec. Je parle francais. And when I think about being a Canadian, speaking French is part of it,” Mr. Ignatieff said.
“But that's not the way most English Canadians now think of their country. They might have done 30 or 40 years ago, when we thought we could live together in this strange hybrid country called Canada.
“Now effectively, we're almost two separate countries.”
Ironically, just this week in Toronto, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra is presenting a musical version of Roch Carriere's "The Hockey Sweater" about a Quebec boy who dreams of wearing the sweater of his beloved Montreal Canadiens, but unfortunately, Eaton's has shipped, upon his mother's order, a sweater emblazoned by the crest of the Toronto Maple Leafs, a complete embarrassment to her son even to consider wearing it outside in Quebec.
And, as we have said here before, Quebec understands, appreciates and engages with her language, culture and community in a very different way from Ontario and the rest of Canada. Quebec speaks, breathes, dreams, eats, studies and makes love "in French" with all of what that means. Her identity is, at its core, French, with the elan and the joie de vivre and the imagination and the esprit and the centrifuge of a international language and culture that depicts both a very unique history and a very different way of looking at the world.
While they pay attention to their tax system, and their university fees (witness the protests in the streets of Montreal for the last several weeks against a spike in those fees, although they are still the lowest in Canada) and their corporate profit figures, they take much more seriously their province's duty to the social programs, to the intimate relationship between their government and people, to the unique and monumental contribution they have made to the growth and development of this country...most of it resented by the parochials in the rest of the country.
And it is the parochialism of Canada, the inward-looking perspective of fear of perhaps take-over, or perhaps not being good enough, when compared with the exuberance of the French people and their culture. that acts as an lead weight, like an anchor deeply embedded in the floor of the ocean, when the ship is trying to sail out of the harbour.
When Ignatieff says 'we don't have anything to say to each other any more,' there is a kind of pathetic truth to that observation. And that is not because the people of Quebec have not tried to bring the rest of the country kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century, especially with respect to social policies, education and health care and the importance of the creative imagination and its intimate contribution to the culture.
Mr. Ignatieff is not the only Canadian who cannot conceive of a Canada without Quebec. There are literally millions of us, currently without a national voice for the cause of keeping the unique and rich quality that has been at the core of the Canadian identity, including especially the animus from the people and the governments of Quebec. The Harper gang, having reduced everything they touch to a measurement of dollars without even acknowledging the meaning of those dollars, like a bunch of technocratic gnats running in search of their own best opportunity across the many rivers, lakes and streams that dot the geography of Canada, without a thought or a moment spent in search of the larger and more enriching and richer landscape of the integration of the many cultures, especially the three founding cultures, English, French and First Nation that comprise the legs of the stool that holds this country upright and together. Self-interest by individuals and by the government itself, is and will never be a substitute for leading and truly governing this complex country.
Will there be another generation of Canadian political leaders who will bring their own version of a national dream to Ottawa, including the full and equal negotiation of a partnership with Quebec, or is it too late for that, given the passion that many Quebecers now feel for establishing their own country, separate and apart from the rest of the country, and given the careless detachment of this current government and that of many Canadians from the long and honourable history of this experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together as equals to the decision-making table?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sherry Turkle: Digital "sips" substitute for real conversation

By Sherry Turkle, New York Times, April 21, 2012
Sherry Turkle is a psychologist and professor at M.I.T. and the author, most recently, of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other.”

At home, families sit together, texting and reading e-mail. At work executives text during board meetings. We text (and shop and go on Facebook) during classes and when we’re on dates. My students tell me about an important new skill: it involves maintaining eye contact with someone while you text someone else; it’s hard, but it can be done.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve studied technologies of mobile connection and talked to hundreds of people of all ages and circumstances about their plugged-in lives. I’ve learned that the little devices most of us carry around are so powerful that they change not only what we do, but also who we are.
We’ve become accustomed to a new way of being “alone together.” Technology-enabled, we are able to be with one another, and also elsewhere, connected to wherever we want to be. We want to customize our lives. We want to move in and out of where we are because the thing we value most is control over where we focus our attention. We have gotten used to the idea of being in a tribe of one, loyal to our own party.
Our colleagues want to go to that board meeting but pay attention only to what interests them. To some this seems like a good idea, but we can end up hiding from one another, even as we are constantly connected to one another.
A businessman laments that he no longer has colleagues at work. He doesn’t stop by to talk; he doesn’t call. He says that he doesn’t want to interrupt them. He says they’re “too busy on their e-mail.” But then he pauses and corrects himself. “I’m not telling the truth. I’m the one who doesn’t want to be interrupted. I think I should. But I’d rather just do things on my BlackBerry.”
A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”
In today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. Walking through a college library or the campus of a high-tech start-up, one sees the same thing: we are together, but each of us is in our own bubble, furiously connected to keyboards and tiny touch screens. A senior partner at a Boston law firm describes a scene in his office. Young associates lay out their suite of technologies: laptops, iPods and multiple phones. And then they put their earphones on. “Big ones. Like pilots. They turn their desks into cockpits.” With the young lawyers in their cockpits, the office is quiet, a quiet that does not ask to be broken.
In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control: not too close, not too far, just right. I think of it as a Goldilocks effect.
Texting and e-mail and posting let us present the self we want to be. This means we can edit. And if we wish to, we can delete. Or retouch: the voice, the flesh, the face, the body. Not too much, not too little — just right.
Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.
We are tempted to think that our little “sips” of online connection add up to a big gulp of real conversation. But they don’t. E-mail, Twitter, Facebook, all of these have their places — in politics, commerce, romance and friendship. But no matter how valuable, they do not substitute for conversation.
My wife and I recently visited a place of business, to examine a variety of offerings, in the transportation industry. We met a salesman with whom I had communicated via e-mail about five or six times, and he was aware of our visit, timed when he would be available.
For a full hour, he listened to every question, sought answers when he did not have them, made suggestions and recommendations as he saw fit, and interracted with both my wife and me in a respectful, listening and conversing manner, almost in a throw-back to another time.
He too came from a small town, and knew that his part of the conversation, (not underscored by a commission relationship with his employer; everyone in the business is paid a salary) was important to our learning, and our own sense of well-being.
Whether we actually make a purchase from him, or from anyone in that sector of the economy, our decision will not be made because he was unavailable for us, following a considerable drive during rush-hour on a Spring Friday evening. In fact, his capacity and willingness to conduct a "full conversation," albeit about the potential of selling one of the products in his business, were topics of conversation following our experience with him.
While my wife and I do use our cell phones to text, when she is busy in her officer, and potentially unable to respond immediately, we refuse to reduce our conversations to that digital instrument, and enjoy "over the kitchen table" conversations if and when they seem appropriate.
We also both enjoy SKYPING with our respective grandchildren, given that their families are hundreds of miles distant, and we do not see them more than once each year.
However, inside the relationship, we "talk" a lot, relative to what we see on the streets (in a university town where students are walking while texting or while conversing on their cell phones) and sometimes for a fair length of time.
It is a treasure of our relationship that I appreciate, and am conscious not to abuse the privilege, especially when Michelle is tired, or merely wanting time-out from a heavy day at work.
It is her capacity to "connect" to her clients for which she is continually receiving compliments and thanks...even taking an extra few minutes to listen and engage in their questions, as she conducts her 'business'.
So, while the conversation is becoming obsolete, at least there are two of us who appreciate its capacity to get-to-know-and-be-known, an essential component to the success of this relationship.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Emotion trumps reason according to author...reflections follow

By Andrew Preston, Globe and Mail, April 6,2012
(Andrew Preston teaches history at Cambridge University. His most recent book is Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.)

For decades, social scientists based their work on “rational choice theory.” Based partly on observations of culture and partly on evolutionary theory, rationalists argued that people generally made logical decisions about their choices in life in order to maximize their chances of positive outcomes. Many people didn’t make rational decisions, of course, but they were the failed exceptions who proved the rule. At both the individual and group levels, people behaved rationally by making decisions that would benefit them the most.

But occasionally, the real world imposes on conventional wisdom and academic theory. In 2008, the economic crisis shattered these comfortable assumptions. Those who believed in rational choice theory, and in naturally self-regulating markets, were left befuddled and disillusioned by widespread irrationality. Sometimes, it seemed, people did not behave in a rational manner, even when their own direct interests were at stake.
We already should have known better. While the popping sound of 2008 was louder than usual, it was by no means the first bubble to burst. Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve, coined the term “irrational exuberance” in 1996 to explain the inexplicable: why investors continued pouring their money into IT companies that couldn’t possibly be worth what their inflated stock prices indicated. Sure enough, reality set in, and the bubble burst four years later.
Yet rationality is a stubborn concept. Does reason rule human nature in our über-modern, globalized age? Many of us assume that it does. But if investors, normally the most clear-eyed and unsentimental of people, were willing to risk their capital and assets on financial arrangements they barely understood, or on tech companies that were overvalued out of all proportion to their actual assets and income, then what does that say about human rationality more broadly? Irrational exuberance would seem to be just as accurate a predictor of human behaviour as rational choice.
Emotion rather than reason, then, is the key to understanding human nature. That at least is the central premise of Jonathan Haidt’s absorbing The Righteous Mind, which should come with a warning label: “contents highly addictive.” Written in a breezy and accessible style but informed by an impressively wide range of cutting-edge research in the social sciences, evolutionary biology and psychology, The Righteous Mind is about as interesting a book as you’ll pick up this year.
Borrowing from the 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who differed from most other Enlightenment thinkers on this point, Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says that reason is subservient to emotion. But he goes a step further, and here’s where The Righteous Mind becomes really interesting. Again building on Hume, Haidt argues that emotion is the source of morality, and therefore actually superior to reason.
The champions of reason have built a strong case otherwise. Emotion, they say, breeds superstition and conflict, and is a barrier to progress. Worst of all, it breeds religion, and religion breeds intolerance and backwardness. Western thinkers, from the ancient Greeks and French Enlightenment philosophes to Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Richard Dawkins, have assumed that modernity, based on reason and science, will inevitably lead to secularization and the decline of religion, which, in turn, will lift humanity to bigger and better things. Secularization theory has become conventional wisdom in the West. Yet around the world, religion shows no signs of abating.
Haidt has an answer for this: Thanks to natural selection, evolution has hard-wired religion, intuition and other emotional and sentimental alternatives to pure reason into our genetic code. In his most frequent metaphor, he compares the psychological interplay between reason and intuition to the relationship between an elephant and its rider. The elephant represents 90 per cent of the relationship, and the rider can’t force the elephant to go where it doesn’t want to go. Yet the rider can sometimes influence where they’re headed. For a variety of reasons peculiar to Europe, Westerners came to give more power to the rider. Still, emotion rules, even in the rational West.
When people believe that something is immoral even if it is harmless – when a man makes love to a dead chicken in the privacy of his own home, to use one of Haidt’s many graphic examples – they are morally dumbfounded. They know it’s wrong, but they can’t explain why.
Haidt argues that we have six moral senses – care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity – just as we have a sense of taste or touch. Liberals usually only feel the first three, whereas all six resonate with conservatives. This doesn’t mean that conservatives are morally superior, but it does mean that it will be nearly impossible to convert others to your cause through an appeal to reason.
The implications of all this are profound and far-reaching, and they help explain why the Western concept of “universal” human rights grounded in individual autonomy is actually foreign to most other cultures (and thus not so universal after all).
This is a troubling thought, and Haidt is not always convincing in explaining it. Though he’s careful to disavow homophobia and racism, his admonition to follow the elephant rather than heed the rider could easily be used to justify the suppression of gay rights or multiculturalism.
After all, people are morally dumbfounded by alternative sexualities all the time, but this should not excuse their ignorance and bigotry. But whether one agrees that the elephant knows better than the rider, nobody could doubt the power of emotion and intuition after reading The Righteous Mind.
Haidt argues that we have six moral senses – care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity – just as we have a sense of taste or touch. Liberals usually only feel the first three, whereas all six resonate with conservatives. This doesn’t mean that conservatives are morally superior, but it does mean that it will be nearly impossible to convert others to your cause through an appeal to reason.
(from article above)
And then there is this...
By Margaret Wente, Globe and Mail, April 21, 2012
Jonathan Haidt has a lot to say about WEIRD culture (of which he is an admitted member). His fascinating new book, The Righteous Mind, is a must-read for anyone who’s dumbfounded that Stephen Harper got to be prime minister, or that so many of his obviously stupid policies are so popular, or that Albertans appear to be on the verge of electing a party full of bigots and climate-change deniers.

Mr. Haidt is a social psychologist who studies the moral foundations of politics. He argues that conservatives and liberals operate with two quite different moral systems. Liberals are almost exclusively concerned with harm and fairness. They see society as composed of autonomous individuals who should be free to satisfy their wants and needs as they see fit. Conservatives have a wider moral palate. They are also concerned with loyalty, authority and sanctity – values that are deeply rooted in human nature and all societies throughout history. They see society as composed of people in relation to community, who have a set of roles, responsibilities and obligations to God and their neighbours. They believe there is much more to the moral domain than harm and fairness.
Mr. Haidt argues that politicians on the right have a built-in advantage, because they understand human nature better than liberals do. Most people’s moral frameworks are far broader – and far less rational and systematic – than liberals believe. Nonetheless, liberal psychologists (and politicians) have spent most of the past 40 years trying to explain why conservatives are so misguided. Why don’t they embrace equality, diversity and change, like normal people? Obviously, they’re repressed and afraid of difference.
Mr. Haidt believes that as long as liberals continue to pathologize conservatism, they’re doomed. Instead, they need to understand why the reaction of many ordinary people to the issues in the news is so different from their own.
The simple answer is that these people are less concerned with individual rights and universal justice than they are with things such as loyalty, authority and people getting what they deserve. They think, for example, that Omar Khadr is a troublemaker in a family of troublemakers who are disloyal to their adopted country and that he should be grateful he’s not dead. They’re glad our government is standing up to save the life of an innocent man, but they couldn’t care less if a brutal killer gets his just deserts. As for transgender beauty queens – well, whatever. But the whole idea that gender can be made irrelevant in human affairs – or that kids can, or should, be raised sexless – is ridiculous.
Of all the Harper government’s policies, the ones that drive liberals craziest are those concerning crime and punishment. To liberals, its law-and-order agenda is nothing more than base pandering to an ignorant electorate. But many Canadians have a sharply different view. They don’t care that crime stats are at record lows, or that mandatory minimum sentences don’t work. What they care about is the Vancouver bus driver who was off work for more than a year after a young thug bashed his face in. The thug got 18 months to be served at a rehab residence. They care about the stupidly light sentence imposed on Graham James for sexually abusing teenage hockey players and about shopkeepers who get charged by the police for trying to protect themselves from thieves. They think these things are profoundly wrong. And despite the enlightened views of liberals, an alarming number of them continue to support the death penalty.
Perhaps if these Canadians were better educated they wouldn’t think this way. Or perhaps, if liberals were better educated in moral psychology, they’d be able to understand why conservative policies are so appealing. My advice is to begin by listening to Jonathan Haidt.
As an avowed, unapologetic "liberal," I can see that there is some validity to the notion that conservatives pay more attention to the 'loyalty, authority, sanctity" aspects of the moral compass, than do liberals. I am revolted by the "attack on the bus driver" but much less interested in "revenge" as I see it, than in the rehabilitation of that attacker, given a full life-history as an integral and essential part of his treatment. It is this "retribution" aspect of the "emotions" as Haidt ascribes the points on the moral compass that is so anathema to this liberal.
While we can agree that our emotions trump our reason, (although all of us protest the inverse in our public discourse, and in much of our justifications for our actions, beliefs, attitudes and aspirations), it does not seem to follow that a society that pursues retribution, as a central tenet of its moral and ethical compass, as is illustrated by the countless acts of retribution in all countries for all time, is developing a society intent on finding and growing the "best angels" in its people.
What may be at the root of the differences between liberals and conservatives, however, is the tenacity with which liberals cling to hope in their pursuit of all moral questions, that seems less evident, to this observer, in the attitudes, beliefs and actions of conservatives. Do liberals actually believe, and live out of their belief, that human beings, no matter how contemptible, are still made in the image of god (imago dei) and thereby open to rehabilitation, reformation and a fully healthy development, given the appropriate conditions, individually? And do liberals also believe that the pursuit of social and governmental policies, regulations and budgets dedicated to the incarceration, punishment and neglect of this rehabilitative capacity, as liberals see it, are both short-sighted and counter-productive, in terms of recidivism, and thereby the "peace-making" within the society, in order to placate this "retributive" component of what Haidt calls the moral compass of human nature?
And while conservatives, analogous to the elephant in the above analogy, with liberals being the tiny, almost insignificant rider, plunder their way through the jungle, never forgetting an offence or an unmet punishment for wrong-doing, we liberals attempt to ride that intransigent and non-negotiable animal through the unconscious assignment of political power, in Canada, United Kingdom and too many other 'right-wing' governments, all the while knowing that without our perspective, on fairness and compassion, there will be no clean air, water and food, not mention health care, education and opportunity, if the conservatives squander all the money feeding their "moral compass" needs for retribution, and what they consider holiness...their own at least.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Vatican dogmatic purists rap knuckles of women religious in U.S.

By Laurie Goodstein, New York Times, April 18, 2012
The Vatican has appointed an American bishop to rein in the largest and most influential group of Catholic nuns in the United States, saying that an investigation found that the group had “serious doctrinal problems.”
The Vatican’s assessment, issued on Wednesday, said that members of the group, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had challenged church teaching on homosexuality and the male-only priesthood, and promoted “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith.”
The sisters were also reprimanded for making public statements that “disagree with or challenge the bishops, who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals.” During the debate over the health care overhaul in 2010, American bishops came out in opposition to the health plan, but dozens of sisters, many of whom belong to the Leadership Conference, signed a statement supporting it — support that provided crucial cover for the Obama administration in the battle over health care.
The conference is an umbrella organization of women’s religious communities, and claims 1,500 members who represent 80 percent of the Catholic sisters in the United States. It was formed in 1956 at the Vatican’s request, and answers to the Vatican, said Sister Annmarie Sanders, the group’s communications director.
Word of the Vatican’s action took the group completely by surprise, Sister Sanders said. She said that the group’s leaders were in Rome on Wednesday for what they thought was a routine annual visit to the Vatican when they were informed of the outcome of the investigation, which began in 2008.
“I’m stunned,” said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby founded by sisters. Her group was also cited in the Vatican document, along with the Leadership Conference, for focusing its work too much on poverty and economic injustice, while keeping “silent” on abortion and same-sex marriage.
“I would imagine that it was our health care letter that made them mad,” Sister Campbell said. “We haven’t violated any teaching, we have just been raising questions and interpreting politics.”
The verdict on the nuns group was issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is now led by an American, Cardinal William Levada, formerly the archbishop of San Francisco. He appointed Archbishop J. Peter Sartain of Seattle to lead the process of reforming the sisters’ conference, with assistance from Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki and Bishop Leonard Blair, who was in charge of the investigation of the group.
They have been given up to five years to revise the group’s statutes, approve of every speaker at the group’s public programs and replace a handbook the group used to facilitate dialogue on matters that the Vatican said should be settled doctrine. They are also supposed to review the Leadership Conference’s links with Network and another organization, the Resource Center for Religious Life.
Doctrinal issues have been in the forefront during the papacy of Benedict XVI, who was in charge of the Vatican’s doctrinal office before he became pope. American nuns have come under particular scrutiny. Last year, American bishops announced that a book by a popular theologian at Fordham University, Sister Elizabeth A. Johnson, should be removed from all Catholic schools and universities.
And while the Vatican was investigating the Leadership Conference, the Vatican was also conducting a separate, widespread investigation of all women’s religious orders and communities in the United States. That inquiry, known as a “visitation,” was concluded last December, but the results of that process have not been made public.
Think of it! A bunch of old men in white skirts telling a large bunch of women how to run their affairs, inside OR outside the church! And listening to the difference between a feminist theologian who teaches at Fordham University, a Catholic institution and a member of one of the religious orders of nuns in the U.S. on PBS, one was struck with the incompatibility of the two positions.
First, paying too much attention to the issues of social justice and like telling a young child s/he is drinking too much milk; there is no way any group calling itself "Christian" can even do too much work in social justice and compassion.
Second, failing to publicly advocate for the church's position on birth control and abortion, when over 90% of all Roman Catholics in the U.S. already practice some form of birth control, is like attempting to recruit the army, after they have scattered to the ends of the earth. They have long ago, left the Vatican in the dust, on birth control, and one suspects, they are about to leave the Vatican behind on abortion, especially if and when the mother's health is threatened or the pregnancy results from rape and/or incest.
Doctrinal purity is the hallmark of this "descendent" of Peter, Benedict XVI, who formerly served the Vatican in his capacity as Cardinal Ratzinger, and excommunicated such theological rogues as Matthew Fox, now an Episcopal priest. Doctrinal purity is also not the church's best and most important offering to the world, especially as it presumes to "know" the mind of God, on specific issues declared "sacred" by the church tradition, and its infallible Pope.
The ban on female priests is another of the Vatican's "sacred cows" and we all know how regressive and  uncharitable that policy is, and will continue so long as the current regime is in power. Another 'sacred cow' is unmarried priests, banning all hope of a married priesthood, in spite of the precipitous decline in applicants for holy orders, at least in the west.
And then there is the attempt to ban specific books, especially those written by feminist theologians, and especially those written by professors employed by Catholic universities, giving the authors some 'pulpit' within the church community to propagate their ideas.
At the centre of this innane posture of the Vatican is fear, the instrument of all evil, given its power to corrupt all those who fall ensnared by its spell, no matter how high the mighty may have previously risen....
  • fear that Roman Catholics will be swayed by the thoughts, writings and actions of the women religious
  • fear that the state will continue to ignore the church's ban on contraception and abortion in it public positions, funding and law
  • fear that the church's "moral authority" will atrophy from neglect, especially in an increasingly secular culture
  • fear that future Roman Catholics will demand change to which the successors of Benedict XVI would be unable to concur, and thereby start a negative snowball down a steep hill, from which it cannot  be stopped
  • fear that the purity and perfection of the one and only Catholic church will be so tarnished as to make it impossible to recruit new converts as the only Christian church worthy of joining
  • fear that the loss of both its numbers of dollars and people (they are so intimately linked as to be literally inseparable) will make it necessary to close, sell off and reduce the importance of the church's body politic to a mere rump, incapable of spreading the word to the unwashed heathens still living in the dark of sin, and apostasy, outside the church
  • and of course, fear that God's will will cease to be followed, for which there is no punishment except both excommunication and damnation, something never to be wished by any devout practising member of the faith, whether inside or outside holy orders or a religious order.
This news is both a tragedy and a comedy, given that the Vatican seems so desperate and the offending women religious are so stunned by the Vatican's reaction. And not five years, nor fifty, nor five hundreds years will not "reform" those women to the dictates of the church, no matter how infallible the Vatican considers its theology.
God no longer lives in Rome, nor in Mecca, nor in any other holy city of the past. God is either very present with us everywhere  or S/He is NOT.

Complex business interests thwart Iranian sanctions

By Sonia Verma, Globe and Mail, April 19, 2012
Sanctions meant to weaken Iran as it enters negotiations with world powers over its nuclear program are choking smaller, legitimate companies, but in some cases allowing those that feed the regime to continue to flourish.

Today, the success of sanctions rests largely on what happens in the glittering Gulf sheikdom of Dubai, a lifeline for Iran that has long served as a lucrative haven for legitimate Iranian businessmen but has also been a convenient base for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The powerful branch of Iran’s military has transformed itself in recent years into a multibillion-dollar business empire with a vast network of front companies that use the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is one, to sidestep sanctions.
Part of the reason why sanctions have been historically difficult for the West to realize is that they rely on the willingness of Tehran’s trading hubs to enforce them. For years, intermediary countries have been reluctant to part with billions of dollars reaped in profit from trade with Iran.

In Dubai, the sanctions themselves have become tougher, and so has their enforcement. In the process, the UAE has become a crucial front line in world efforts to stymie Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The West’s crackdown on trade and financial transactions is being most keenly felt among the Iranian traders that call the UAE home, with hundreds of legitimate companies that trade with Iran being forced to shut down and, in some cases, IRGC companies being driven further underground.
Authorities in the UAE have shut down dozens of companies illegally trading with Iran. The United States has also singled out specific Dubai-based banks, recently forcing Noor Islamic Bank to cease channelling billions of dollars from Iranian oil sales through its accounts. Despite these measures, some IRGC companies have simply found new ways to circumvent sanctions.
“Business has never been better,” said the finance manager of one Iranian company, controlled by the IRGC, with a satellite office in the Dubai World Trade Centre.
In an extensive interview with The Globe And Mail, he detailed how his company uses a front company in the Dubai Free Zone headed by an Iranian with a Swiss passport to launder its financial transactions, which total $1-billion a year. Shipments from Tehran are relabelled in Dubai to suggest they originated from there. The company’s shipments then proceed, unhindered, to countries including Pakistan, India and China.
The finance manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the sanctions have simply forced his company to “get more creative with its accounting,” funnelling money through parallel accounts at those Iranian banks, which still operate in Dubai, for instance.
The UAE has always been a vital trading route for Iran, a crucial source for consumer and other goods.
According to the International Monetary Fund, Iranian imports from the UAE rose from $1.8-billion (U.S.) in 2002 to $13-billion in 2008. Today, official trade between the two countries, according to UAE foreign ministry figures, ranges around $10-billion a year. Illegal trade through IRGC front companies in the UAE accounts for billions more, according to analysts. Ten per cent of the UAE residents hold Iranian passports.
The main reason why sanctions have been so difficult to enforce in the UAE is because the rulers of its separate emirates have been torn between competing allegiances. Abu Dhabi, a staunch ally of the West, is intensely fearful of Iranian aggression and has lobbied the United States to consider all options – including military intervention – to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Dubai, on the other hand, has been reluctant to enforce sanctions because they would throttle lucrative business with one of its biggest trading partners.
The conflict between the competing emirates was resolved, in a roundabout way, by the financial crisis of 2008 when Abu Dhabi rescued debt-ridden Dubai with a $10-billion bailout package. The intervention prevented a wider regional crisis that would have threatened Dubai’s reputation as a global economic power. But evidently the rescue came with strings attached. The Burj Dubai, the tallest building in the world, was renamed the Burj Khalifa after Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. More significantly, Abu Dhabi’s increased leverage over Dubai forced a reckoning with its Iranian interests that undermined sanctions.
“For years Dubai was a huge headache for the administration because it was unwilling to enforce sanctions,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington, and an adviser to the Obama administration on its sanctions policy. “That’s changed.”
Iran’s willingness to take part in a fresh round of talks with world powers in Baghdad next month is being hailed by some as proof that it has suddenly become serious about negotiating on its nuclear program. But experts say Tehran’s engagement is hardly a gesture of goodwill. Rather it’s an act of economic desperation.
“I think there’s no doubt that the Iranians are right at the table because of sanctions, particularly the ones in recent months which have been very punishing,” said Mr. Dubowitz.
Sanctions against Iran were dramatically intensified over the last year by the Obama administration and successive rounds of United Nations resolutions to hone in on the financial transactions that are crucial to trade. This unprecedented wave of international economic sanctions is poised to come into full force by summer.
In many cases, the wide-ranging sanctions have punished the wrong people – the legitimate Iranian business people in Dubai.
Thirty years ago, in the wake of Iran’s revolution and the onset of the first Persian Gulf War, Morteza Masoumzadeh traded the misery of Tehran’s blackouts and food shortages for an uncertain future in Dubai, then a desert backwater, but just a two hour flight away.
From modest beginnings he built a vast fortune through a successful shipping line, ferrying everything from timber and tires to rice and refrigerators across the Persian Gulf to his homeland. At its height, Mr. Masoumzadeh’s Jumbo Shipping Line pulled in $150-million of business a year. Today, however, 70 cent of his trade has collapsed.
“It has been devastating for us,” said Mr. Masoumzadeh from his company’s headquarters, which overlook the Dubai Creek. He currently serves as an executive on the Iranian Business Council, which represents 8,000 Iranian businesses in Dubai. Last year, about 600 of them closed down as access to credit, bank guarantees and insurance dried up.
The crackdown is intended to isolate Iran through economic sanctions, but affects virtually anyone doing business with the Islamic Republic. Suddenly, legitimate businesses like Jumbo Shipping Line that have thrived for years in the free-wheeling port city are fighting for survival. American efforts to bar banks from dealing with Tehran have meant that securing credit to finance trade has become virtually impossible.
“Legitimate traders in the UAE are so-called collateral damage,” explained Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace in Washington. “They would like to see U.S. and international sanctions target Iranian government entities, rather than paint such a broad brush which hurts those whom we’re ostensibly trying to help.”
For his part, Mr. Masoumzadeh is resigned to the fact that his business will likely peter out, the casualty of the cold war between the West and his homeland.
“We know that world powers have no other option. We know their intention is not to put us out of business, but they are forced to, so they can achieve a greater goal,” he said.
Business pursues a single goal, profit, no matter what the consequences, it seems.
And when the business interests of any country trump the national goals of that country, then it is as if the diplomatic conflict must include wading through the swamps that business generates to thwart the diplomatic initiatives.
Why, for example, would India and Pakistan and China permit their business interests to thwart the sanctions against Iran, except for the advantage such permission gains them diplomatically, strategically and even tactically. It is no longer, it would seem, just those countries in the immediate neighbourhood, for example, in the Middle East only, who comprise the network through which all international conflicts must be negotiated.
We all know of the Syria-Iran axis, linked intimately to Hezbollah and Hamas, supplied with arms from Russia (and who knows what other countries...China, India, Pakistan???) and the trouble in military and quasi-military violence that has been wreaked by that axis, on the seemingly political battlefield, and the business/corporate/industrial network that operates more in the shadows of that public face continues to strengthen its resolve, and seek to win other international players among so-called unalligned countries.
So, while we listen and watch, as the Israeli Prime Minister publicly scorns President Obama for "negotiating" with Iran, we also know that, underneath that public scorn lies a long and trusted allegiance between the U.S. and Israel for which Israel is grateful, without being either subservient or sycophantic. Nevertheless, should a military conflict break out over the Iranian determination to produce enriched uranium for military purposes, we can be confident that, as around the world, so in the Middle East, countries will divide, some supporting Iran and her allies, some supporting the U.S. and Israel and their allies.
And the "independence" of countries like  Russia, China, India and Pakistan (and North Korea?) will be indefensible given the public evidence of their continual "under-the-table" support for Iran as well as some "above-the-table" military support at least from Russia.
Are we watching the alignment of powers, both for and against Iran, leaving the field deserted by truly impartial and thereby legitimate brokers of a negotiated settlement? Certainly, Turkey, once thought of as such a power, has recently issued statements implicating NATO's commitment to defend all members in the event of an attack, after Syrian forces shelled the border between Syria and Turkey.
The "plot" thickens, and we are not even sure how it might be growing more murky, cloudy and thereby impenetrable...let's hope the representatives of countries like the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Israel herself, can and will keep their sight clear, their minds open and their strength, including the strength to compromise and to discern when to draw real lines, as this growing tension plays out over the next months and years.
And let's remember that Iran with nuclear weapons is not analagous to North Korea with nuclear weapons,  except in the literal definition. The implications are far more immediate and threatening, should Iran succeed in acquiring nuclear weapons capability. And with India's now joining the intercontinental missile club, firing rockets capable of reaching Beijing just this week, the world is certainly not becoming safer, but rather much less safe.