Saturday, June 29, 2013

Spirituality 201

Literature, that is fiction, poetry, drama, was approached as a window on the question of the difference between "appearance and reality"...posing the questions of motive, truth, hiding, dissembling, and even the differences between the literal and the metaphoric....
In the midst of this exploration of the clashing of appearances and reality, of course, there is a question of the words used to both disclose and to conceal. Dependent on the meaning sent and received of those words, lives are changed forever. And one's experience is highly instrumental in determining the meaning of words...sent and decoded.
Science, at least for neophytes, boasts of its command of the empirical universe, naming, defining combining and re-combining elements, generating equations and theories that require even more experimentation with new equations...all of them dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of the universe, that universe that is available to the senses.
Exploring questions of one's spiritual life, on the other hand, means often borrowing approaches from science, from history, from philosophy, even from sociology and mysticism. In fact, 'knowing' about something as complicated as a human being's relationship with God, is fraught with so many questions and so many tentative answers that such 'knowing' itself becomes unknowable....and mystics often speak of living in a "cloud of unknowing" to the empirical and to the mysteries in a state of receptivity, openness, searching and even perplexity. Even 'knowing' oneself, a kind of existential primer, is a search without a formal and final conclusion. Others continue to unpack the truth of one's life and meaning long after one has physically departed this orb. Biographies of some people continue to emerge from scholarship even centuries after the date of the death of those subjects, each of those biographies attempting to shed light on a canvas portrait to which all are invited and welcomed to contribute.
Similarly with God, the most sought-after entity, whose 'biography' and portrait continue to emerge from both the pens and brushes of writers and artists, as well as from the tomes of systematic theology scholars, ethicists, prophets and even the acts of religious disciplines, communities and shamans.
Stories abound of lives initially charged with a disciplined search for "God's meaning for my life" through the pursuit of scholarship, of religious community, of reading, fasting, praying, meditating...only for many of those individuals to find that their wildest imaginings and their most feverent beliefs and passions and impulses were thwarted by the people around them whose approach seemed more like a "paint-by-number" experience of fitting into the community by espousing in words and deeds, the expectations of that religious community...whether that is a religious denomination, a segment of that faith, or some other established formal organization.
There is a kind of initial comfort to the experience of 'fitting in' to a religious community, that benefits from the confirmation of the tradition's expectations and the integration of those traditions into one's daily life experience. And yet, there is, in the human spirit, a kind of energy or wind or fire that impels one onwards past the "acceptance and affirmation" of the community who seem to "know" how to be an appropriate participant...
And it is that energy, wind, fire, curiosity even doubt that impels many outward from the comfort of the religious community into further doubt and discovery and mystery...both of who one is and how one is in relation to a 'higher power' of whatever form and meaning that might take. It is out on the edges that we find both the 'rejects' of our societies and the 'rejects' from many of the more strict religious is on the edges that one sharpens one's questions about that universal and timeless question, "What's it all about?" Of course, one needs and grows from the initial exposure to and discipline of some tradition of religious life. And that discipline can and often does also threaten to 'cap' one's pilgrimmage with the comfort of the affirmation of the community.
There is a kind of interior questioning of the "appearance-reality" dichotomy that began back in those highschool literature classes, that can infuse one's search for one's spiritual birthing.
Is one going to live "inside" the rules and the expectations of one's religious community, as part of a team of evangelists who attempt to bring others into the fold? Is one comfortable with  a kind of marketing of one form of a religious community's faith, as the one most appropriate and most closely alligned with the tenets of a religious text? Does the exegesis of that religious text meet the highest standards of both scholarship and of spiritual growth and development to which humans are capable of incarnating? Does the practice of the religious community seem to reduce both the human spirit and the human capacity to create or to provide energy, support and the oxygen required for hard questions, doubts and even confrontations?
Learning to say, "No!" to many of the proferred beliefs, practices, interpretations, applications and rulings that come from religious communities can be, and often is an important way to discern one's own path to wholeness and some kind of personal integrity, a sine qua non for any search for a relationhip with another human being, and certainly for any anticipated search for a relationship with God. Learning to say yes becomes much more difficult if one has never learned to say, "No!"
And in saying "No!" to some reductionism of either God or human potential, one is beginning to approach, even if indirectly, a "yes" to a larger and more alive and less restricted God as well as the human existence.
For example, saying "No!" emphatically to the oligarchy's control of the global economy, through the flow of meagre words in this digital format, and the increasingly desperate state of poverty verging on destitution, as one of its more significant results, is not merely a political act, but has become an act of spiritual courage....requiring the degree and purity of commitment that elevates that commitment to an expression of the sacred (insofar as humans are capable of expressing the sacred). We can no longer insouciantly take the gifts of clean air, water and land for granted, nor can we take for granted an equal access to health care and a full education for our children and grandchildren, as a consequence of the take-over of the levers of all aspects of the economy by those with money, and the legislators whose careers depend on the flow of supporting cash that protects the vested interests of those 1%. We are, or must become adherents, members, supporters and even contributors to the Occupy Movement, if we are to take back the backrooms of legislatures in all states, provinces and national capitals where the large decisions are taken to oppress the poor.
So much of the pursuit of God seems to follow a strict adherence to a code of belief, of behaviour and of religious practice, as if in strict "obedience" to that code, one is affirming one's acceptance of God's acceptance of that life. And that, it says here, is a form of classical conditioning that reduces God to a superior with military expectations of obedience, loyalty and deference that only the most insecure officer could either demand or expect...even in battle. And it also reduces the human capacity to explore, even to defy, to rebel and to obstruct... to evil and infamy and ultimately rejection from the religious community.
There is and must be a kind of palpable risk-taking to the formidable pursuit of a relationship with God, not the kind of risk-taking that one encounters through social rejection, but rather the kind that one encounters when stretching beyond one's comfort zone. Faith, if it does nothing else to and with the human being who bears it, lifts him or her beyond what would have been envisioned without that faith.
Life beyond the comfort zones of one's intellect, one's imagination, one's energy and one's picture of the "possible" is only possible through diving into the mysteries, not merely of one's own faith community but into the mysteries of the faith communities of others.
And only through consistent acceptance of the important mysteries, the clouds of unknowing that accompany any and all spiritual journeys can and will we open our hearts and minds and bodies to the potential with which God has endowed each of us.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Either-or distopia precludes the TAO

YIN AND YANG is used to describe how seemingly opposite or contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world; and, how they give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Many natural dualities (such as male and female, light and dark, high and low, hot and cold, water and fire, life and death, and so on) are thought of as physical manifestations of the yin-yang concept. The concept lies at the origins of many branches of classical Chinese science and philosophy, as well as being a primary guideline of traditional Chinese medicine,[1] and a central principle of different forms of Chinese martial arts and exercise, such as baguazhang, taijiquan (t'ai chi), and qigong (Chi Kung) and of I Ching.

Yin and yang are actually complementary, not opposing, forces, interacting to form a whole greater than either separate part; in effect, a dynamic system. Everything has both yin and yang aspects, (for instance shadow cannot exist without light). Either of the two major aspects may manifest more strongly in a particular object, depending on the criterion of the observation.
In Taoist metaphysics, good-bad distinctions and other dichotomous moral judgments are perceptual, not real; so, yin-yang is an indivisible whole. In the ethics of Confucianism on the other hand, most notably in the philosophy of Dong Zhongshu, (c. 2nd century BCE) a moral dimension is attached to the yin-yang idea.[2]
The concept of yin and yang is often symbolized by various forms of the Taijitu symbol, for which it is probably best known in Western cultures. (from Wikipedia)

Taoism"In Taoist metaphysics, good-bad distinctions and other dichotomous moral judgments are perceptual, not real; so, yin-yang is an indivisible whole."
In the west we seem locked into a different metaphysic: a kind of black and white child-like conflict that really plays itself out in our movies, our television shows and our political conversation.
The 'right' sees itself as both 'right' and the defenders of small government, big armies and a tsunami of capitalism unrestricted except by the ingenuity and the will of the practitioners.
The 'left' sees itself as both 'ethical' and compassionate serving as the voice of the forgotten, the underclass, a small army and a managed capitalism that attempts to level the playing field.
And never the two shall integrate, compromise, balance each other, or become part of a whole, either visibly or covertly.
And yet.....
we are living in a vortex of influences, many of them seemingly beyond both our control including our definition of and prescriptions for the "problem."
We refuse to drop our simplistic categories, all of them in conflict with their opposites, in an infinite battle that offers each of us, at best four choices: join the right, join the left, withdraw or become an activist, really a sub-set of the first two.
 Hegel's dialetic posits a thesis, an anti-thesis and emerging from the debate between those two is a new synthesis. And while that larger process may be operating in our peceptions of the world, and in our developing perceptions of the possibilities, there is definitely a different and troubling worldview that keeps rearing its head....fanned by a media voracious for both simplistic and lethal conflict between personalities, forces, institutions, and even moralities.
Are we not failing to teach our children to embrace the complexities of all issues, and not just the empirically measured differences between heat and particles in physics, for example?
Are we not failing to teach our western children the wisdom of the TAO?
Are we not failing to teach our children the gifts of those we call, in geo-political terms, our enemies, so frightened are we that it is a kind of obsessive fear that grips our conversations, our headlines, our dialogue, and our attempt to deal with others at work, at school, in our churches and around the world?
Are we not in danger of falling into a trap of perceptions that  may, at one time, have served to authenticate various conflicts, yet no longer can be sustained in a world so inter-connected and inter-dependent and in so much danger, both to indivuduals and to institutions?
We read about "transnationalists" who wish to develop legal principles to apply across national boundaries, and of course their opponents trash their every thought, because to develop such principles that each country would enforce, would be a denial of "democracy" which asserts that laws be written and passed by individuals who are elected by their constitutents and can be turfed by those voters at election time. And so, we dig two more, really similar that sees beyond our national boundaries into the future, and another that looks back to keep "restricted" definitions and their applications in place.
Why can't or won't we embrace the virtues of both: preserving our own democracies while also embracing the benefits of shared transnational legal principles that could bring us into a more integrated and more tolerant and more enriched perception of who we are both individuallly and collectively, two more words that are loaded with political and cultural freight, not permitted to sleep in the same sentence?
Why can't our world view include a reverence for both the past and the future, without either sacralizing or denigrating either?
Why can't our world view include a reverence for both male and female, without demonizing or pedestalling either?
Why can't our perception of how we move forward include respect for both the labour movement and the corporate gifts without bowing to either idol?
Why, indeed, do we obsess about idols, at all?
Are we not, in fact, in deed and in belief falling into a new form of idolatry: our obsession with both instant gratification and the technology that "appears" to adapt to our every breath?
I heard recently, through a very close colleague, that one Canadian writer has observed that many Canadian young people are not able to sign their own name....leaving the pen and its gifts out of their experience....
Has our collective and political and educational reality been so trimmed, (as in budget trimming of the "fat") that our children will be able only to digitize their identity?
Has our political and psychological and metaphysical reality been so "dumbed-down" that we will have a few genuises running things and a host of nobodies letting them?
And are we in danger of letting this happen, or have we already arrived in our own distopia?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Public needs under threat by corporatist ideology and truck-loads of cash

Floods in Alberta, with excessive and unprecedented rainfalls; floods in the upper mid-west in the U.S., with excessive dry heat in the southwest leading to premature and devastating forest fires; tornadoes in unprecedented numbers laying waste to more and more communities in the central-southern U.S.; hurricanes like Sandy pummelling the Atlantic coastline of New Jersey.....and no one is willing to say categorically that these climatic events are the direct result of climatae change and global warming.
Yet, we all know that something is far different in our weather patterns, and we all know also that human production of carbon dioxide, while abating in select areas, is also rising without the prospect of abatement in others.
And our political leaders, of all stripes, focus on the "economy, and jobs and prosperity" while they too must know that they are burying their heads in the sand on needed measures to slow and hopefully to halt those CO2 emissions. It is not that jobs, the economy and prosperity have no place on an enlighted political agenda; it is rather that our governments have to be able to "walk and chew gum at the same time"....and they are not either able or willing to do so.
There is a glaring and growing opportunity for political leaders  of all persuasions to grasp, for their own careers and for the benefit of their constituents, in merging the need for jobs and the need for significant interventions to protect an environment that will not sustain the lives of our grandchildren.
China, the largest producer of carbon dioxide emissions, has shown signs of beginning to take this issue seriously, yet North American politicians, especially in Canada and on the 'right' in the U.S. have been hiding behind China's slow pace to curb emissions, uttering statements that our cutting back will mean little without the big emitters taking action.
Every single serious act to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is another step toward both sanity and human health and protection. Obama's executive order requiring auto makers to double the gas mileages of all cars produced in the U.S. by 2020 is one bold step toward sanity and public health. Nevertheless, the lobby against taking additional steps is so strong that those working to protect and possibly even to save the environment are blocked at every turn, by groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, ALEC, whose workings began as a fundamentalist 'christian' effort to reduce the size of government and to limit the numbers of voters who exercise their franchise.
As the PBS program, Bill Moyers and Company, demonstrated, once again last evening, ALEC has members in the corporate world as well as in the legislative field. Many states' politicians are members, and the bills that they are generating in state legislatures are being designed, written and lobbied for to protect those corporate interests whose huge dollar contributions, all of them tax deductible, since ALEC is classified as an "educational" institution. In one state, the legislature has voted to spend public money paying for the memberships of their legislatures to join ALEC, as Moyers put it, "That's like tipping the thief for picking your pocket!"
Bils designed to create virtual (digital) schools, generated by ALEC, would flow public dollars into private school corporations, which would then teach the "ideology" of the corporate grail, generating more adherents to the religion supporting corporate profit, at the expense both of the public schools and the environment. Corporations like Exxon-Mobil, BP, Chevron and Koch industries have no interest whatever in measures that would protect the environment because such measures would restrict the consumption of fossil fuels. And those corporations have found a tax-exempt haven into which they can and do pour truck-loads of cash for the express purpose of derailing any attempts to restrain their pursuit of corporate profits, including the production and consumption of the very fuels that are destroying the world's water, air and land, on which all of us depend.
It is an old "song" and getting boring for both readers and those sensitive to the future of the planet, for their grandchildren. Even here, we have harranged frequently and as loudly as these keys will permit, on behalf of the long-term issue of environmental protections, that will, of course, cost everyone a little, including those fossil-fuel-addicted, and profit-addicted behemoths, in the short run, but may perhaps provide a longer term of health breathing in return.
The "public" in public schools, and in libraries, and in colleges and universities and in hospitals and specific services has to be maintained, if we are to prevent the surrender of our culture and our way of life to the private sector....and the private sector has no interest in the public's needs and the public good. Their focus, unfortunately and anally, is their bottom line, and they will go to considerable lengths to keep their investors' and their executives' pockets lined with dividends and bonuses respectively.
The public "voice" as in NPR in the U.S. and the CBC in Canada, both under threat from their respective governments, is one channel through which the public conscience is kept alive, and is spread to those previously tone-deaf to the need for them to become activists in the cause.
We can see activism in many quarters where it was silent previously; will we see it's birthing in North America, to the degree that the situation requires?

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Obama's foreign policy "trashed" by Philadelphia Inquirer reporter....unfairly!

The  Foreign Affairs Reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Trudy Rubin, appearing Friday morning on "On Point with Tom Ashbrook" on NPR, gave a rather negative comparison of the Obama who spoke in Berlin as a presidential candidate, in 2008, with the President Obama, who spoke on the eastern side of the Berlin wall earlier this week. Weakened, dimmed, and ineffectual for many reasons, ran her argument. She accused him of  having done 'nothing' to achieve leverage in the Syrian civil war and of failing to achieve leverage in the negotiations with the Taliban, coming too late in the those talks. She also pointed to Obama's reference to reducing nuclear weapons by a third, in his Berlin speech, as something that is not at the top of the agenda for U.S. foreign policy, demonstrating that Obama has lost his way in foreign policy.
Generally, Ms Rubin concludes the Obama foreign policy is a failure.
Let's take a closer look.
In Lybia, Obama worked with allies to overthrow the dictator.
In Egypt, Obama wondered out loud if Morsi and his Islamic Brotherhood were actually allies of the U.S., something that is still unclear.
In Syria, it turns out that the CIA have been training the rebel forces for some time, although the information went public only this week. Obama has also been providing considerable humanitarian aid to refugees, both directly and through neighbours Jordan and Turkey whose countries have been the 'catch-basins' for those refugees, over their borders with Syria. Rubin alleges that Putin will not be moved from his position of support for the Syrian dictator, Assad, and that his body language in Ireland, appearing on television with Obama, was another indication of the failure of the Obama foreign policy, because Putin does not have to take the U.S. and Obama seriously when Obama asks him to join in ousting Assad.
It is true that Putin has delivered on his commitment of S-300 missiles to Assad, and that Iran and Hezbollah have both continued their active support of the regime in Syria.
However, for the U.S. along with Britain and France, and other European countries to attack Assad on behalf of the rebels in Syria could result in a larger conflict the implications of which are extremely difficult to contemplate. And the army of scholars who hold such a view is quite large.
The years between 2000 and 2009 when George W. Bush was president saw the U.S. wrecklessly engage in two unfunded and increasingly unpopular wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which have cost dearly in American dollars and in human lives to both death and serious, long-term deformaties.
And that does not even put onto the table the emotional and domestic costs in divorce and suicides of military personnel as a direct consequence of both campaigns. And not incidentally, neither war achieved much more than to depose Saddam Hussein, and to provide blatant and obvious and very compelling arguments for terrorist recruitment by the Islamic radical movements, some of whom are complicating the Syrian conflict.
Who wants Islamic radicals to gain possession of American arms supplied originally to the Syrian rebels?
There is a news story bouncing around the air waves, and the print media, that both then Secretary of State Clinton and then Secretary of Defence Panetta believed there was a time when segmenting of the rebels into "good guys" and "bad guys" in Syria was possible, and that arming the "good guys" at that time was both feasible and worth doing. Obama rejected their recomnendation, according to the recent news reports. Obama's continuing resistance to another military engagement, even of modest measures, in Syria, fits with the American people's fatigue with war, and with his attempt to restore America to international respectability on the world stage. Pugilism, hawkishness, and a quick trigger-finger, hallmarks of the Dubya administration, are not a legacy Obama wishes to leave to his successor, even though he was prompted to assert to Charlie Rose, earlier this week, on CBS, "I am not Dick Cheney!"
There were a couple of callers to the Ashbrook program who helped to put the question of American "position" in the world in perspective. One called representing a group known as "Come Home America" which believes that American gun-diplomacy has been too costly and has achieved too little. Another caller pointed out that 'America has to get used to a reduced influence in world affairs, given her struggling economy, her exhausted military, her failures in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and the rise of both China and India.
There is an insatiable appetite for instant answers to extremely complicated problems, both in personal lives and in national and international diplomacy in the United States. "I want it and I want it now!" runs the juvenile, even childish, narcissistic cry, from all ages, and from all quarters. And being the world's "Super Power" at least in their own minds, means that whatever American wants, America will get sooner or later. Unfortunately, the appetite for instant gratification is unsustainable, both personally and internationally. Limited perspectives, dependent on shibboleths that have run their course, and are not longer relevant, are no longer serving the United States and significant adjustments must be made.
Obama, now unleashed from further pandering to the voter for election or re-election, is determined to maintain what to many must seem an "unAmerican" approach of caution, restraint, and the holding back of the U.S. military tsunami, which, if unleashed, could and would devastate everything in its path.
For literally centuries, gun-boat diplomacy, or "guns-and-butter" have been key components of American foreign policy along with "boots on the ground" and for a long time, the world has benefitted from such international muscle. In Europe, in Asia, in Korea that was true. In VietNam, not so much. In Afghanistan and Iraq even less. And the long-term lessons have to be weighing in the president's decisions.
A superb orator, can Obama through his continuous deployment of the bully-pulpit, help to transform American stereotypes of hard power and military might into  more modest and more sustainable and more collaborative models of relationship, without emboldening the opponents like Russia and China and radical Islam, while also bringing domestic hawks like John McCain and Lindsay Graham along to his vision.
So far, Obama has focused on individual terrorist targets, with some success through his drone and intelligence policies and practices. His "state-to-state" interactions with both China and Russia have left some like Trudy Rubin savagely critical, apparently fearing the U.S. will be taken advantage of by opponents who believe Obama is weak. In the short run, there may be some minor losses of "face" and of dents to the super-power mask. However, in the long-run, Obama's foreign policy, based as it is and has to be, on a realpolitik assessment of his own country's vested interests, and not merely on the acquisition of more oil, or more superficial and manipulable friends who can and will be "bought" with U.S. dollars, the real currency of historic American foreign policy, could have the long-term impact of demonstrating to the American people that their purse and their AK-47 are not enough to keep them secure. It will take nuanced diplomacy, complicated theoretical research and planning and a commitment to a world of international collaboration and compromise, something his political opponents have demonstrated they are not interested in learning or using for the good of the American people in Congress, and the healthy functioning of their beacon-on-the-hill democracy which Republicans have virtually extinguished in their racist and pig-headed and relentless undermining of every single initiative proferred by the current occupant of the White House. In so doing, Republicans have perhaps permanently tarnished the American reputation for healthy democracy around the world where their example has been for so long, an inspiration to many.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Obama does not deserve to be compared with Nixon (as Macleans does)

Macleans magazine has a story this week linking Obama to Nixon as the sneakiest president since the Republican resigned.
It is such a specious premise that, in one sense, hardly needs refuting.
On the other hand, clearly the editors of the magazine decided to jump on the bandwagon of both telephone intelligence from reporters' phone calls, as well as the disclosures of Edward Snowden about intelligence gathering, previously under wraps, added to the disclosures about the Internal Revenue Service's program to interrogate applicants for tax exempt status as social welfare agencies, and not political activism organizations, the recent publicity of the American drone program attacking suspected terrorists (along with "collateral damage" of innocents). The list makes for quite damaging reading by the White House; however, it is exclusively the sum total of the president's staff, or his decision-making that provides the fodder for the attack.
A republican, is now reported to have been intimately engaged in the IRS debacle, and in fact, more left-leaning organizations were denied tax exempt status than were Tea Party affiliates. The justice department may well have over-reached in the gathering of intelligence on reporters, and the National Security Administration's PRISM program has been demonstrated to have prevented or thwarted many prospective terrorist plots against the United States. The drone program, while expanded under Obama, has been brought to the attention of the public by this president whose approach is to curtail further use of the program, and to work with congress to develop restrictions that would limit their deployment by future presidents, as well as the current occupant of the White House.
To compare a paranoid president, best with the demons of his own mind (Nixon) and the political enemies he thought hated his person, including many in the media, whose names he chronicled on his own private hit list, and the cover-up he engineered over the Watergate burglary, and the contempt he held for too many public servants of both parties, with the current president is not only unfair in the extreme but pretentious and specious as well.
Obama, far from paranoid, is attempting to regain the upper hand in the public mind for the Democrats in fighting terror, given the history of public confidence in the Republican Party for national security. His administration has not only accomplished that political goal, but has protected the people of the U.S. through consistent, targetting and successful decapitation of many of the leaders of the Al Qaeda group. His is consistently taking the high road in public discussion of his political foes, in spite of their consistent thwarting of any proposals he sends to the Congress. The nuances of the many complex issues facing Obama, none of which were facing the Nixon presidency, have, admittedly, imposed a more stringent picture of the reality of the United States' position (and the threats against her) on the president, compared with the more idealistic "candidate Obama," of 2008 and prior to his entering the White House. That development is hardly surprising, but, as he told Charlie Rose this week, "I am not Dick Cheney" and for the Canadian national magazine even to infer a positive comparison with "tricky Richard Nixon" demonstrates a debased professionalism among the editorial staff, including the editor, whose eyes and mind had to have vetted the piece before it went to press. Has honest, authentic and reasoned journalism been replaced with headline-gushing grabs for sales and for advertising dollars at Macleans? There is clearly an argument that can be made to that end.
As a Canadian, I am embarrassed that what was once a proud national magazine has stooped so low, as to feature this comparison as a headline on its front cover, even though the actual copy in the story is somewhat more moderate and modest.

Music program rescued in Toronto schools!

Toronto school board trustees rescue music staff

Toronto District School Board changes its tune about cutting instructors but chair says pain must be felt somewhere.
By Kristin Rushowy, Toronto Star, Wed Jun 19 2013
It was the day the music didn’t die.
Toronto trustees saved music instructors but slashed school budgets as they debated the 2013-14 board budget late into the night.
Facing a $55-million deficit in their $2.9-billion budget, trustees earlier this year voted to cut teachers and other school staff to save about $27.7 million, and on Wednesday discussed proposals to find the remaining $27.3 million to balance the books.
Refusing to cut the music instructors and hours of programming added $2 million to the savings to be found, and Toronto District School Board Chair Chris Bolton said it would be added to a budget line called “in-year savings” — which basically means they will be found during the next school year through not filing job openings right away or through lower utility costs.
That boosts the in-year savings to be found to $10.5 million.
Bolton said, however, that while music has grabbed the public’s attention — many trustees spoke about how the outcry was the biggest they’d ever seen — other cuts like those to school budgets were going to affect programs
“Textbooks cost more,” he said. “The problem is, you don’t have the materials to start up classrooms or to do new initiatives,” he said after briefly leaving the meeting to speak with reporters.
“This is a victory — the Toronto District School Board has one of the best music programs in the country and we’re going to be able to maintain it for at least another year,” said Trustee Chris Glover after the budget vote.
Of course, we enthusiastically endorse the Board's decision to salvage the music program in Toronto schools. And it is not only the Toronto board that will be affected by this decision. Other boards, both across Ontario and across the nation will be watching and reading about the Toronto board's decision, motivated in part by the huge outcry from the public.
Board members in most jurisdictions will be wary of a similar public outcry in their own areas, something trustees who depend on local ratepayers' votes for their jobs on the boards of education do not seek, and work tenaciously to avoid.
Music has so many benefits, outlined in some many different fora that we need not repeat those benefits here.  Suffice it to say that good sense prevailed in the Toronto Board this time, and next year about this time, another wave of public support for music/opposition to budget cuts to the music program, will have to be mounted by those who understand the full implications of the move.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Older workers pay attention to detail, have strong work ethic....FREEDOM 67?

Older workers: At this company, average employee is 65

Half of a Boston company’s workforce is part-time senior citizens, countering myths about value of older workers. No Freedom 55 here

By Adam Mayers, Toronto Star, June 18, 2013
NEEDHAM, MASS.—When a special order comes in that calls for a steady hand and a sure eye, the work at Vita Needle often goes to a machine operator called Bill Ferson.

For the past 25 years, at Vita’s factory in suburban Boston, Ferson has been taking very small, hollow stainless steel tubes, thinner than a piece of spaghetti, and shaping one end to make high quality needles and probes.
Ferson is 94.
Vita Needle is his second career. For 39 years before joining them, he had a first career at another company making fine measuring instruments.
“I only planned to work for a few months, but I’ve been here ever since,” he says.
Ferson is part of a unique workforce at the family-owned firm that may offer a glimpse of all our futures. Half of Vita’s 49 employees are 75 or older. Half the workforce is part-time and the average age of all employees is 65.

Ferson recently became the oldest worker when Rita Finnegan, who turned 100 in 2012, upped and quit.
“Her health is fine,” says 30-year-old Frederick Hartman, a third-generation member of the family to work at Vita. “She wanted to keep working, but her family moved 30 miles away and she couldn’t handle the commute. We miss her.”
Fred Vettese, chief actuary with Toronto pension consultants Morneau Shepell, says the day is coming when there will be more companies like Vita. Forget Freedom 55, he says. Think Freedom 67 and beyond.
“The cohort that’s growing the fastest in the workforce is the 60-plus group,” he says.
The reason for the growth is that baby boomers want to keep going and the economy will need them. As this demographic moves into retirement, it will leave gaps. There aren’t enough younger people to fill the spots.
Vita, which means “life” in Latin, makes a range of specialty needles and probes. It takes the tubes and turns them into such things as the darts used to tranquilize animals, needles used in hospitals, and medical research and probes to test the temperature of food. Its products may be found at your local garage in the gasoline pump or as part of a tire pressure gauge.
The company was founded in 1932, during the Great Depression, when Frederick Hartman’s great-great-grandfather, an engineer, lost his job as a textile mill plant manager. So he went into the needle business, buying a nondescript building in downtown Needham that had been a theatre.
Vita’s success in employing a large workforce of part-time retirees shatters most of the myths surrounding older workers. These employees offer many advantages. They are reliable and pay attention to detail. They aren’t as fast as younger workers, but they are more concerned about getting it right. They need less supervision. They have a strong work ethic. They understand teamwork.

“We don’t have any prerequisites when it comes to hiring,” says Frederick Hartman Sr., Vita’s president. “What we want is the desire to work, the ability to get along and a willingness to take on new challenges. The rest we can train.”
These employees have helped the company to attain record sales in 19 of the past 22 years. It posts growth of about 5 per cent a year.
“It’s a pretty good trend,” the younger Hartman says.
Vita began hiring local retirees in the mid-1980s. It couldn’t find workers willing to commute to Needham, which is about 30 kilometres west of Boston. The word went out that Vita was looking for part-timers who were retired, regardless of their previous work history.
The first hired was Bill Ferson, who was 69 and three months into retirement. He was getting under his wife’s feet, so she told him to go find something to do.
“Vita had placed an ad that said they were looking for seniors, so I went to talk to Fred and he hired me.”
Ferson was born in Moncton, N.B., but has lived in the Boston area most of his life. He has no use for computers or email and still uses a rotary-dial phone at home. He confesses to a love of Oldsmobiles, lamenting the passing of heavy, beamy sedans in favour of smaller, less substantial cars.

He now lives alone. He bought a new Chevy Impala a few weeks ago and makes the one-kilometre drive to work most days at 4:30 a.m. It takes him two minutes.
“But I’m not the first one in,” he’s quick to add.
Ferson works eight hours a day, four days a week, just three hours shy of the 35 hours that legally divides part-time from full-time work. Below 35 hours and the company does not have to provide benefits; above and it must.
“I used to work the max, but I cut back a bit,” he says. “I’m not 21 anymore.”
Ferson operates a swaging machine, which turns and crimps the tubes to create a round or pointy end. The work is more art than science and so mass production is not practical.
Ferson had never operated a swaging machine previously and Vita did not have one because it was contracting out the work. But Frederick Hartman Sr. decided Ferson had the right skills to bring the work in-house, so he bought the machine and let Ferson figure it out.
“Bill was courageous enough to give it a try,” Hartman Sr. says. “He taught himself what to do.”
He’s been doing it ever since, creating a new line of business for the company. He has turned out hundreds of thousands of the medical needle assemblies, temperature probes and industrial dispensing needles.
When Ferson’s wife Martha died in 2001 he thought of quitting, but his doctor urged him to keep working.
“I wouldn’t be alive if it wasn’t for this job,” he says. “It lets me use the stuff upstairs in my brain. I see people, I socialize. They pay me. ”
That bundle of intangibles is why many of the seniors work at Vita. It’s true that some need to work because they don’t have savings or adequate pensions. For others like Ferson, it gives a sense of purpose, it helps them stay intellectually and socially engaged, and the paid work makes them feel that they are making a valuable contribution.
As part-timers they are also cheaper to employ because, as retirees, medical and dental bills are covered by government programs, not the company. Vita includes them in a generous profit-sharing plan. At the end of the year everyone is eligible for a bonus. Typically it’s four to eight weeks pay. In some years it is as much as three months.
Mike LaRosa, Vita’s operations manager, rides herd on the shop floor, where the tasks are well-defined and simple. Workers tackle them at their own pace. The jobs include machining the parts, assembling them, checking quality and shipping.
LaRosa has to keep on top of schedules where people take unpaid time off for holidays, medical appointments, a grandchild’s school concert or other life events. One employee just started “summer hours.” He doesn’t work Mondays; that leaves him free to have a hassle-free commute from his cottage on Cape Cod, about a 45-minute drive away.
Bob O’Mara, 76, is a Yale graduate and chemical engineer. He once built nuclear power plants. Now he puts in 20 hours a week in four- or five-hour days assembling needles and valves. He takes Thursdays off because he sings in a male choir and may be away for a month at a time because he likes to travel.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Hedges: nothing short of fear "that they are coming to get us" will affect needed change

It was a warm June Friday evening, in a magnificient United Church on Bank Street in Ottawa where five hundred-plus gathered to listen to Chris Hedges talk about the failure of the U.S. government, and ocasionally reference "Harper" as even more venal especially with his "Right to Work" legislation which Hedges dubbed the destruction of the labour movement in Canada. Titled, Days of Destruction, Days of Defeat, the lecture was based on Hedges' recent book of that title, illustrated by Joe Sacco, on his interviews with the most depressed, destitute and hopeless people living in various pockets of poverty and isolation across the United States.
He outlined a time line of history, not normally taught in public or especially in private schools in America, in which the liberal class, never intended to take power itself, nevertheless formerly pressured the establishment, the government, to make changes that would benefit a larger number of American citizens, and increasingly has lost its heft to exert such pressure. The media is owned by a few conglomerates, virtually eliminating a "free press," (Hedges won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the war in Bosnia for the New York Times), the corporations have bought their elected representatives, thereby gutting the labour movement, refusing to pay needed attention to the growing threat of global warming and climate change, incarcerating the greatest number of prisoners per capita in the world, and laying waste large tracts of land through open-pit mining, which also ravages both adjacent rivers and the lungs and health of the workers who toiled for those mining companies.
When asked, "What can we do about all this?" Hedges recounted a story from a writer who focused on the Nixon administration.
Apparently, Nixon, at the height of the public protests against him, commandeered all out-of-service buses in Washington, and ordered them to form a ring around the White House. When that was completed and he was nervously speaking with Henry Kissinger, his closest adviser, Nixon is reported to have repeated, "They are coming to get us! They are coming to get us! They are coming to get us!"
And that, according to Hedges, is what he is advocating against all governments in North America, that they are brought to their knees, and their consciousness about how they are failing ordinary people, through concerted, unrelenting, and non-violent public pressure.
He points to stories from his experience in which single individuals have, through their own defiance and determination, affected change in their own country, after other events and other occurrences by other individuals have brought about the change for which the original activist was working.
In his own case, reading from the text of Days of Destruction, Days of Defeat, he tells of his own  red lesions of tuberculosis, from his reporting days in Africa, from which he has recovered because of his health, but from which disease many of those with whom he lived, especially children, never recovered and whose faces never leave his consciousness. While marching, as he did, on the Offices of Goldman Sachs, following the meltdown of 2008, he recounts how "I brought those faces of those children who did not survive to the front doors of Goldman Sachs," one of the financial services industry firms that is responsible for much of the inequality that exists across the U.S.
Married to Canadian woman, who insists on raising a Canadian flag on their Princeton New Jersey home on July 1, to commemorate Canada Day, and on leaving it there until July 4, the American Independence Day, Hedges also recounted an incident in which he overhead a neighbour walking past the Canadian flag comment, "Those fucking Canadians!"
It was, for the writer, a night of both exasperation and inspiration, the former for the lack of will to make things different on the part of government, and the latter for the amount of work that still remains to do.
As an ex-cleric, I join Hedges, also an ex-cleric, in the long march to both sanity and the courage it will take to oppose, at every turn, the galloping greed, insensitivity, narcissism and insouciance that governs both Washington and Ottawa, not to mention other world capitals, in the hope that our grandchildren will have a world in which  sanity and civility and compassion will have replaced the icy cold blasts of selfishness. It was to Kevin O'Leary, who interviewed Hedges on CBC, and who thanked his guest for sharing his views, that Hedges commented, "It will be the last time!" referencing the encounter with Canada's supreme and supremely cold capitalist on the Lang and O'Leary Exchange.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Happy Father's Day, Dad

He would have been 108 if he were alive for Father's Day, 2013. He died in July of 1996, in his 91st year. George Cusden, born in Alvinston, Ontario, son of a Baptist clergy father and a kindergarten teacher mother. The eldest of four, he was raised in Baptist clergy manses in Alvinston, Woodstock, Thornbury and Parry Sound, where he finally settled, began work in a sawmill and later transitioned to a more general store, including hardware, building supplies and later English bone china.
A speech impediment collared him throughout his nine decades, particulary noticeable whenever he was tired, or anxious; yet he loved to participate in and to watch sporting events, especially hockey and baseball. While 'serving' his customers, as opposed to 'selling' something to them, his conversation centred on their needs, their budgets and their hopes, not only for the project they were currently undertaking, but also for the long-term success of their children and grandchildren.
A quiet man, more taciturn than demonstative, and more passive aggressive than pugilistic, he demonstrated a kind of dry, self-depricating wit, surprising anyone near with its timing. He was disciplined about both his "invoices" that required extending in order for the components to be "priced" and displayed on store shelves for sale, and about garden, lawn and snow-shovelling chores around the house.
He married a nurse, three years after her graduation from St. Michael's Hospital's Nursing program in 1934, after waiting a year for his prospective in-laws to approve of the marriage. Finally, still without their formal consent, his fiance announced to him first and then to her parents, "We are getting married in your living room this Friday night!"
Negotiations were not the order of the family, apparently. Edicts, final edicts, were more the norm.
A similar "edict" appeared a few years later, from the same source, now his spouse. After lunch one day, she announced to his surprise, "I need a house and I need it right away!"
Knowing the implications of both acceding to her wishes and of the failure to do so, he approached another merchant, a jeweller, to inquire about the purchase of the home in which the jeweller's mother then resided.
"Yes, you can buy the house, for $3000, but you can't have it until October, when she will be moving out!" came the jeweller's response. Neither of the buyers had set foot inside the building, a small brick salt-box, before they completed the purchase. Trust of the owner/seller was more the norm in the mid-30's that it is in the twenty-first century.
Interior decorating, as a process of renewal both for the building and for their 'spirits', seemed also to be something to which they devoted considerable energy, over their nearly quarter-century in that house.
Gyptex, a kind of interior ivory-coloured white-wash, dappled by sponges to evoke images of exterior stucco, plus burlap bagging as a wainscotting was supplanted by a 'new' wallboard made mostly of paper, as a simulated (unconvincingly) wood panelling a few years later. An auto was out of the question for several decades, as tight money flowed sparingly into new 'decorations' which always included hand-made draperies.
There was never any doubt, from either my sister or me, about who was in charge in our home; it was our mother. Perhaps it was more her delivery than her content that generated her 'force' of character.
Father, on the other hand, was molded from compassionate DNA, one presumes more from his father than his mother. A gentle demeanour and a normally happy smile greeted all who encountered him either in the store or on the way to or from, along the sidewalks he frequented.
Occasionally, he would permit himself a golf game, perhaps twice in the half-century I knew him, and although his scores were never really memorable, there was clear evidence that had he afforded himself the time to practice, he could have achieved a relatively low handicap. He had strength in his arms and upper body, one assumes from all the heavy lifting of all those bags of cement he carried to customers cars and trucks over the years.
While her lexicon of verbal directives and invectives were loud and frequent, his silence, by comparison lives on through strings of memories in which his "presence" is the most memorable and notable aspect. He brought a kind of calm reassurance, a deliberate patience that whatever it was that needed attention, could be there was always hope accompanying the look on his face, the sound of his voice and the strength of his erect physique.
It is that hope, that confidence, that most revered of qualities, the comfort he enjoyed in his own skin, (even if that comfort was disturbed by his anxiety) that remains most indellible in my honour and privilege to have been blessed with his presence in my life.
Happy Father's Day, Dad!

Friday, June 14, 2013

U.S. convinced chemical weapons were used by Assad, now about to declare a "no-fly" zone on Syria's southern border with Jordan

From Reuters, in Toronto Star, June 14,2013
ANKARA/WASHINGTON- The United States is considering imposing a no-fly zone in Syria, in what would be its first direct military intervention of the two-year-old civil war, Western diplomats said on Friday, after the White House said Syria had crossed a “red line” by using nerve gas.

After months of equivocating, President Barack Obama’s administration said on Thursday it would now arm rebels, having obtained proof the Syrian government used chemical weapons against fighters trying to overthrow President Bashar Assad.
Two senior Western diplomats said Washington is mulling a no-fly zone close to Syria’s southern border with Jordan.

“Washington is considering a no-fly zone to help Assad’s opponents,” one diplomat said. He said it would be limited “time-wise and area-wise, possibly near the Jordanian border,” without giving details.
Imposing a no-fly zone would require the United States to destroy Syria’s air defences, entering the two-year-old civil war with the sort of action that NATO used to help topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya two years ago.
The area near the Jordanian border contains some of the most densely-populated parts of Syria, including the outskirts of the capital Damascus.
Washington has moved Patriot surface-to-air missiles, war planes and more than 4,000 troops into Jordan in the past week, officially as part of an annual exercise but making clear that the forces deployed could stay on when the war games are over.

The Russians have already told the world that they are committed to shipping a substantial number of S-300 air defence  missiles to Assad who is already being supported by both Iran and Hezbollah, Iran shipping weapons THROUGH Iraq (an Ameircan ally?) into Syria in support of the Syrian regime...and so the actors' list  is nearly complete on the playbill of another war in the Middle East theatre.. So far China has yet to declare that she will send arms to Assad, in support of him and his allies, although there did support Russian efforts to veto a UN resolution asking Assad to step down.
Britain and France have stated publicly that they were, for several weeks now, aware of the use of chemical weapons on the Syrian opposition by Assad; it was the U.S. under Obama who was demonstrating a measured, deliberate and almost reluctant defiance, refusing to decide to enter the civil war that has already killed nearly 100,000 and maimed thousands of others, as well as leaving over a million refugees in neighbouring countries of Jordan and Turkey. We now learn, from Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, that former Secretary of State Clinton and former Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, were arguing the case for intervention in Syria prior to leaving office in the Obama cabinet.
Particularly galling in the timing of the announcement of the White House decision is the fact that Senator John McCain went to the floor of the U.S. Senate and pre-empted the White House announcement, rending the decision in the most negative light possible....that it would now lead to an outcome that no one could predict or estimate.
Problem is, McCain is probably right that this newest attempt to declare war by the U.S., with only limited engagement, can and and will only see the inevitable "creep" as each intervention proves not to resolve the dispute but rather to enhance the need for additional a  time when the U.S. population is suffering from "war fatigue" and the White House is also fighting so many domestic skirmishes that it has run out of finger to keep track. On the only issue on which the Democratic president can count on Republican votes to support his efforts, the declaration of another war, it seems the Republic opposition is still determined to destroy the President, even though its voting booth option is now off the table forever.
Bury him under so much pressure, inflict as many wounds as is conceivable, and hope that he will succumb through a tragic illness, or some unforseen mistake in judgement for which the only solution is resignation....
We have all heard of people who demonstrated what sociologists call "slow suicide" through such excessive and drawn-out methods as smoking and drinking to excess on a dailiy basis. Well, perhaps we are watching what in political terms might be called "slow assassination" of the president by his Republican opponents. Never in the last three-quarters of a century has there been a U.S. president whose relations with the "other side" have been as vicious, as toxic and as damaging to the country as the current Republican opposition to Obama...and it is certainly not going to abate unless and until he leaves office, however that might happen.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

America needs an "adult" conversation about how war no longer solves complex problems

When neuroscientist, Dr. Carl Hart, appearing on On Point with Tom Ashbrook on NPR, commented that up to now the American conversation about drugs had been an "adolescent" conversation, and that he wished to have an "adult" conversation, as a prelude to his call for the end to the 'war on drugs' and the decriminalization of all drugs, (as opposed to their legalization)...bells went off in my head.
It was Earle Birney, late, Canadian poet extraordinaire, who dubbed Canada an "adolescent" nation many decades ago, and hoped he would 'grow up' before it was too late.
However, having spent nearly half a decade working in the U.S. and more recently observing the volcano of emerging stories about whistleblowing, institutional over-reach,  force-feeding of prisoners at Guantanamo (recently decried as unethical in the New England Journal of Medicine), the dozens of thousands of sexual assault complaints in the American military and the "chain-of-command" sanctity of the old-boys' network between the Joint Chiefs and the Senator Carl Levin, I found the question of an adolescent country leaping to the front of my mind.
Why is it that America today seems like an "improvised explosive device" about to explode?
Why is that the "adolescent" characterization of the country, by Dr. Carl Hart, on their traditional approach to illicit drugs, seems so applicable to the broader issues infecting the body politic?
Founded as an orphan and rebellious child of England, refusing to submit to the 'tyranny' of kings and taxes without representation, picking up the guns and the arrows and the canons and throwing the "tea" into Boston harbour, they 'won' their independence through sheer force of human will aided and abetted by their intimate relationship with the technology of the time.
Leaving home is by its very nature, an adolescent stage of one's development. It is essential to the potential achievement of one's full potential.
Over the centuries that followed, of course, the American experiment included "making friends" with the former "tyrant", England.
But that experiment also imprinted a rebellious, and somewhat simplistic clinging to the pride of accomplishment that was achieved through the war of independence and to the history of "freedom" that they believed was conceived in their new "incubator" of ideas of democrary and a new frontier on the American psyche.
In America, if one listens carefully, "nothing is impossible" if they truly set their minds, hearts, and guns to achieve it!
Only problem is that the sheer force of will, including all the hard power on the planet, is insufficient to untangle and re-arrange some of the more gordion knots of bureaucracy (including a military footing to all bureaucracies) and the new world's realities of globalization, terrorism, religious fanatacism, and the tsunami of individualism that sees all eyes and ears fixated on little screens alive with digital bubbles of data, most of it rising like soda bubbles in their favourite soft drink, signifying little more than a taste of sugar without a trace or nourishment.
Those fixations, and the complications that emerge from a public that is addicted to its own narcissism, giving hardly a glance to the weighty and significant issues facing the country, through full engagement in the debate process, except to throw invectives at those elected to make decisions on their behalf,
and now able to fire those invectives across all time and all space from their own little digital 'rifles'....the words replacing the much older canons balls and musket if the re-enactment of those former battles, while now enshrined in their own historic re-enactments as summer festivals so no one will forget to remember, has now moved onto a new battleground and 'theater' of war, the internet.
It too, in American psychic and intellctual and archetypal terms, is now a place of war, given the flurry of news stories about cyber-espionage and the charges that China is the new England, the new enemy.
Where will America flee, in their headstrong determination to flee from and then defeat the enemy, that is the DNA of their political ancestry?
As a high school teacher for nearly a quarter-century, I have watched these adolescent over-simplifications of the issues, linked to the turbulent writhing of the hormones of adolesence, pour out in literally hundreds of classroom discussions, a few even with some important personal history in tow...e.g. "I'm glad my mother rejected the advice she was given when she became pregnant with me," came the startling words of a grade ten co-ed, in a conversation about the merits and dangers of abortion.
However, it is well past time for the American body politic to have an adult conversation, about the roots of its ancestry, and their fading appropriatness in a much more complex and somewhat both more and less civilized world in which being Number One is no longer sustainable, not even for their Goliathian military...when the world's poor and starving are the new David's.
It is time that that kind of simplistic sling-shot logic of slaying the dragon enemy was laid down to a permanent rest, shipped off to the museums which cover the American landscape like forts, canons and statues to fallen heroes.
It is time to take off the war-chanting, and myopic blinkers that attempt to re-create an origin no longer achieveable, without shedding the glory that once was. Gatsby, through Fitzgerald, needs to be re-visited, to once again demonstrate that the past cannot, will not and must not be purchased with the gold that was yester-century's achievement.
Things really are much more complicated than those video games, and the war-history and its poetry would have us believe....and it is time to put down all the arms in all the wars and begin the long, arduous process of learning both to listen and to talk straight to both friends and enemies within and without.
The president of South Korea, a woman, cannot be all wrong in her recent entente with the infantile North, can she?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ivison on Mulcair: echoes of a deep and unforgiving class war

There is a clear and growing contempt for the labour movement, epitomized in columns like the one John Ivison wrote as his review of Thomas Mulcair's speech to the  Ottawa Canadian Club, in which Mulcair rhetorically promised that the only interest members of his (hoped-for) cabinet would have to promise to support would be the "public interest"....
Ivison envisages the CUPW "bolsheviks" taking off their boots before becoming comfortable while visiting at 24 Sussex should Mulcair become Prime Minister.
And while there is an element of radicalism among some union leaders, there is also a frontal campaign of political assassination of the labour movement based on the extremes of some of is members.
Demonizing the edges is not substitute for looking straight on to the needed support for workers who cannot and must not be considered a "special interest" the right wishes to do.
There is enough hypocrisy in Ottawa to fill the banks of the Ottawa River, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. And all parties, including journalists like Mr. Ivison, have their own kep-pads covered with it, so his contempt for a "truth and honesty" politician in Britain who was later charged and convicted and imprisoned as a serial liar is nothing more than his ad hominum contempt for that specific man, and does not work as his paint brush on Mulcair.
It is time that workers were no longer considered by the right as a special interest, but rather as an essential component in a healthy society, and Ivison's pointing to the slower growth of unionized companies compared with non-unionized, demonstrates his willingness to capitulate to the domination and terms of the employers who could give a fig for their workers...including paying minimum wages, operating with little regard for safety and the need for worker benefits, and the almost complete sell-out of the middle class to feed the greed of the corporate execs...and their uber-bonuses.
Talk about a class war!
And it will not end if and when Tom Mulcair and the NDP form the next government. However, given the evidence from both of the old parties, Mulcair's attempt to lump them together in 'having lost sight of the purpose for which they took power' is not so far off the mark,
Workers everywhere, including Canada, who have no protection, whether from the labour movement or from worker associations, co-operatives or the like, are vulnerable to the vagaries of both their employers and the marketplace. It was originally to temper both of those forces that the labour movement was created, and it has provided many examples of currently embedded support and benefits for workers that they, and their non-union peers, would never have enjoyed, had there been no labour movement.
We are not, and have no intention of worshipping at the corporate altar; in face, it is the corporate "special interest" that has been pandered to in Ottawa since Harper came to power....and that has to stop...and if the best way to stop that parade of folly is to elect Mulcair's NDP, then the voters of Canada will be surprised by the kind of government a Mulcair NDP will provide...and the world will see Canada once again as a champion of the ordinary worker, not as a special interest but as an integral component of a healthy economy.
Editor's Note:
The writer is and has been a member of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers since 2005. For many years, from 1966 through 1984 he was also a member of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Snowden...neither hero nor traitor...much more important than either!

If speculation that Edward Snowden's disclosure of the meta-data grab of individual phone calls, and other digital communications, of both U.S. citizens and foreign 'aliens' (to use the word Americans prefer) is somehow linked to collaboration with the Chinese government, not only is it one of the most brilliant diplomatic moves in geopolitical history; it also demonstrates a level of regal snubbing of the U.S. by the Chinese, at the precise time of the face-to-face meeting of Obama and the Chinese premier.
On the other hand, Snowden's whistle-blowing escapade will be the subject of intense legal, diplomatic and political debate for weeks, perhaps months...possibly even years.
Daniel Ellsberg's escapade with the Pentagon Papers is still evoked by journalists covering the Snowden story decades after the events that brough Ellsberg to public notoriety.
Listening to both sides debate whether Snowden is an American hero, or a man guilt of high treason, on progams such as NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook, one has to wonder if the American public discourse can accept a reality of more than two options. It was Simon and Garfunkel's song "Kodachrome" that elevated colours and coloured pictures to the top of the American 'hit parade'. Nevertheless, it is the American political culture that seems to permit only black-and-white positions on everything from Obama's presidency to the IRS's trolling for information, to the Justice Department's search of the phone records of American journalists to the status of Mr. Snowden.
Bi-polarity, borderline personality, walking a fine line between neurosis and psychosis, is something the American public mindset seems only capable of sustaining. There is so little subtlety in the American public consciousness as to render those who seek a more detailed and a more nuanced and a more realistic view on all public issues, not to mention private and personal issues, that one wonders if this 'state of mind' is the result of the decade-plus of intense defensiveness evoked by Islamic terrorists who "would destroy us" if they could, or whether that mind-set was embedded in the American collective consciousness from the beginning of the nation's founding on the battlefield.
Winning and losing is a concept at the heart of the American psyche; and the only acceptable goal is winning. Everything for every person, family, school, corporation, politician and political party, not to mention every journalist is about winning, or facing the humiliation of losing....and when the world is seen through such a lens, there are very few options.
Let's back up a bit and shine a wider and more inclusive lens on the Snowden story; he is neither a hero nor a traitor. He is an ordinary human being with a perspective on the degree to which the American intelligence community can and will go to "secure" its own national security....and legitimately wonders if that pursuit does in fact compromise the very security he has been employed to protect, along with the uber-machinery that the government has set up to fight the terrorists since 9/11.
That is, as the president has said, a debate worth having and we might add, long overdue, even though those in Congress have been kept abreast of the various complexities of the various intelligence-gathering programs since their inception. However, as in most matters where Congress has "oversight" such oversight, for example, with the FISA court, has refused but one application for invasive tactics since its establishment. So, the matter of Congressional oversight of intelligence-gathering by the U.S. government is little more than a marketing ploy....a veneer of public respectability that does not warrant the name oversight.
America, as a country, big, broad, loud and vibrant with all kinds of energy, also has a Shadow, just as does every other nation, corporation, university, college, church, school and family, not to mention every individual. And it is long past time for the American public consciousness to open that sack of Shadow truths to the light of day. Mr. Snowden may spend the rest of his life in limbo, as a fugitive from American justice, in some welcoming country like Iceland, or perhaps even Hong Kong, yet he has, once again, opened the Pandora's Box of secrets that has frightened the American establishment, but also contains the one ingredient on which the country depends...HOPE!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Real estate needs some re-working to tip the balance to the consumer

Having spent the last several weeks in the real estate sector, as a potential seller and buyer, there are clearly visible gaps in the "self-regulation" of the industry that could easily be closed, for the benefit of both the consumer and the industry.
Since the cap industry has instituted the "carfax" report, or some other forms, to document the history of the vehicle for unsuspecting purhasers, why does the real estate industry not insist on "building inspections by independent agents" prior to any listing. Pictures, videos that depict a seductive residence, with all the apparent amenities a purchaser might be looking for, do nothing to show the hidden weaknesses, structural red flags, or gaps in insulation that might be lurking for the unsuspecting purchaser.
How many real estate deals have gone sour once the inspector's report is completed?
The argument will be that the purchaser will wish to select his/her own inspector...and yet, a pool of licensed inspectors would go a long way to meeting that independent and objective requirement.
And then there are the less visible and often more irritating omissions in communication that drive potential deals off the rails.
When an agent is preparing an offer to purchase, for the client, it would seem reasonable for that agent to know a few basic facts about the offer...
  • Is it truly a final offer?
  • Is there a range of prices within which that agent can negotiate on behalf of the purchaser?
  • How wide is that range?
  • Is the agent representing client who will use the residence for its current purpose, or is the purchaser intending to use it as an investment and rent it to tenants?
  • Is the seller an estate, a family, an elderly man or woman represented by a lawyer, or some other entity?
There have been attempts to establish codes of construction, for new buildings, with warranties, most of which seem to have been fairly empty of teeth, if and when their terms were expected to be fulfilled.
Warranties, just as in the car industry, especially with new vehicles, have to be specific, reasonable, reasonably written for the average reader (not only for the legal profession) and redeemable. Such integrity seems not to have been built in to the real estate sector's self-governing process.Self-governing, while irritating and annoying, in the long run is probably preferable to government stepping in on behalf of the consumer. It seems that government may have to insert itself in the real estate industry, if the consumer is to have real, redeemable and reasonable protections, especially in the case of new home construction.
And then there is the question of the real estate agent knowing his client, especially if that client is an estate, with a lawyer in another city, who considers it reasonable to yank permission for an extension of an offer, without warning to either the estate representative, or the real estate agent who is acting for the estate.
So much of the real estate industry operates on available information, including the sales of comparable properties in a similar geographic area, over a period of time. And so much of 'price-establishing' is subjective, based on the agent's experience and knowledge of the market. Perhaps it would be reasonable for purchasers to acquire at least three proposals on current market value from three different agents, all from different agencies, prior to signing a contract for a listing. In that way, the seller would have a much clearer picture of what the real estate is "worth" in the current market.
Setting a number, primarily based on the agent's commission (the higher the value the greater the size of the commission) is hardly a reasonable, nor trust-building premise on which to establish a value.
With real estate values galloping higher and higher in too many markets, the only ones who are really laughing all the way to the bank are the real estate agents, and their brokers, while ordinary purchasers and sellers are too much at the mercy of the insiders who are operating the market.
And this little memo does not attempt to address the questions of land use planning and the mounting evidence of gate-keeping in too many towns and cities in North America, for the establishment, and against newcomers, based on economic "value" of the person. And that little toxic bug requires another piece, given its growing malignancy.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Cameron anounces $4.1 billion Global Nutrition for Growth to feed hungry children of world

World Vision, a private relief and development agency, signed Cameron’s compact and promised to contribute $1.2 billion to the international effort.
 “This is a global moment . . . for aid agencies, governments and businesses to come together,” said Therrien.
Reaching kids in conflict zones is key.
“More than 60 per cent of the world’s undernourished children live in fragile and conflicted states like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan,” she said. (from "Britain leads $4-billion push to end hunger" by Tany Talaga, Toronto Star. June 8, 2013, excerpted below)
It is not very difficult to drive down the streets of any large urban area in North America and notice the disparity between those areas where the kids have more than enough to eat and those in which the kids are quite literally hungry, if not starving. The gap is both tragic and growing, right before our eyes!
Getting the "rich" nations to recognize the depths of hunger and starvation on the 'other side of the globe' is not quite so quick and easy. It is the bombs and the machetes that immigrants from those starving child incubators set off that gets the attention of 'western' politicians. When the blood and severed limbs and dead bodies are lying in the streets, whether in a gas plant in Algeria where six Brits were killed or on the streets of South London where a young British soldier was hacked to death, Prime Minister David Cameron has taken notice.
Would that it did not have to come to this!
Would that the compassionate and common sense aphorism "we are our brothers' (not just brother's!) keeper" would extend to all the starving children, ripe for recruitment into the gangs of terror, wanton violence and religious dogmatic ideology. At least those gangs offer more than the subsistence existence of those children and their broken and battered families can offer, and thereby seduce those young, innocent, undernourished and ripe recruits into their brain-washing, mind-numbing, and body sustaining plots to kill the rich, immoral 'westerners'....
It is, apparently, not enough for the citizens and their politicians in the west to know that we all breath the same air, drink the same water, eat the same food grown on the same soil, in order to waken to the mental, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual isolation that, in spite of the many attempts by 24-7-365 television and cell phone technology to inform us of our narcissistic self-absorption and our uber-affluence, especially when compared with the lives of those children, often raising their own siblings in the absence of their parents, who scrape from the trash of others to survive. We need even more abhorrent and visible and tragic circumstances to move to substantial action, on the part of all citizens.
The NGO's, while growing in number and in effectiveness and efficiencies in their capacity to ameliorate various forms of social unrest, simply cannot do it all on their own. They, and we, need our governments to keep up a steady, relentless and increasingly loud drum-beat of financial support for the starving children....because only by doing so will we recruit the numbers of young people, and train them to 'fight the starvation and the disease' without falling into the trap of religious evangelism, that requires each recipient of a donated meal to join a religion that provided it. We must not do "missionary" work in the manner of those who attempted such work in our own communities over the last century. We must separate aid and the opportunity to receive it from any religious aspirations of converts to our particular form of faith, no matter which faith we represent. We must never again, consider ourselves morally and spiritually superior even to those who have not and do not wish to acquire any faith commitments. We can prosletyze about democracy, given our embedded experiences with a form of government that accepts all people as equal, with equal rights, equal dignity and equal opportunity....that would serve those whose needs we are attempting to meet, with a hand-up and not a hand-out, as the Americans have subtly shown us; however we must never hint that our democracy is dependent on devotion to a particular religious creed, belief or practice.
Our motives, for such engagement in the fight to relieve hunger, disease, poverty and lack of access to both health care and education might easily and appropriately find their footing in our religious convictions; however, those convictions must never be linked to our participation in any activity on the ground that attempts to recruit "converts"...and that includes the christian brands of religion, with which we are more familiar.
God does not need, and does not want disciples, in any religion, who are merely the grateful recipients of a quick fix for their desparate lives. Christians, just as other religions, need to back off any attempts to use their food packages as inducements for conversion. Such "bribes" do not serve either the faith or the recipients, who are by definition unable to decide for themselves what they believe, until and unless they are able to sustain themselves in body, mind and spirit....and then begin a search for their spiritual path, a journey that cannot be shaped overtly and from a power position by our gift of food.

Britain leads $4-billion push to end hunger

In advance of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, British Prime Minister David Cameron unveiled Saturday a $4.1-billion initiative to prevent stunted growth in children and improve maternal and childhood health

By Tanya Talaga, Toronto Star, June 8, 2013
ENNISKILLEN, NORTHERN IRELAND—As the G8 nears and demonstrators organize, British Prime Minister David Cameron is using his bully pulpit to start a new fund to alleviate malnutrition in children by 2020.
Each G8 host traditionally champions a cause, and on Saturday in London Cameron announced his — a $4.1-billion initiative to prevent stunted growth in children and improve maternal and childhood health.
Cameron’s Global Nutrition for Growth Compact — unveiled before African heads of state, former UN general secretary Kofi Annan and Bill Gates — will receive $600 million in core funding from Great Britain along with $446 million in matched funds.
If more money was directed towards food, less would be spent on arming nations against each other, Cameron said while addressing his nutrition for growth summit in London.
Britain has recently experienced two terror-related incidents. In January, the Algerian gas plant explosion claimed the lives of six Britons and, last month, soldier Lee Rigby was killed by knife-wielding assailants in Woolwich in southeast London.
“We understand that if we invest in countries before they get broken, we might not end up spending so much on dealing with problems — whether that’s immigration or new threats to our national security,” Cameron said.
“So yes, Britain will continue to lead from the front.”
This large financial push comes at a time when Great Britain is struggling with its own economic woes — high unemployment and controversial austerity cuts to government services, including welfare.
“(There) are those who say, ‘OK, it will make a difference, but why does Britain always have to be out in front?’ Let me tell you why. It’s because of the kind of people we are. . . We accept the moral case for keeping our promises to the world’s poorest, even when we face challenges at home,” he said.

The compact was signed by 24 governments, including Canada, and by businesses and non-governmental organizations.
The $4 billion raised will be spent by 2020 on goals that include:
•improving the nutrition of 500 million pregnant women and young children;
•reducing by 20 million the number of children under five who are stunted by poor nutrition; and increasing access to severe malnutrition interventions.
Two years ago, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosted the G8 in Huntsville, Ont., he committed $1.1 billion to ease maternal and infant health.
World Vision Canada’s Wendy Therrien praised Canada’s efforts in improving basic nutrition. World Vision, a private relief and development agency, signed Cameron’s compact and promised to contribute $1.2 billion to the international effort.
“This is a global moment . . . for aid agencies, governments and businesses to come together,” said Therrien.
Reaching kids in conflict zones is key.
“More than 60 per cent of the world’s undernourished children live in fragile and conflicted states like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Afghanistan,” she said.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

E-mail from Toronto transits to Chicago before being routed back to

“There is no border. The way telecommunication traffic is routed in North America, the fact of the matter is about 90 per cent of Canadian traffic — no one really knows the exact number — is routed through the United States,” Deibert told the Toronto Star.

“Internet exchange points are critical — this is where traffic is passed between companies — and we have only two Internet exchange points in Canada . . . As a consequence, even an email sent within the city of Toronto most likely would transit to Chicago before being routed back to Toronto.”
Along the way, your Canadian data is subsumed through “filters and checkpoints, shared with third parties, with law enforcement and of course intelligence agencies that operate in the shadows,” he said. (from "Canadians not safe from U.S. online surveillance, expert says" by Mitch Potter and Michelle Shephard,Toronto Star, June 7, 2013, below)
In many senses, the globe is becoming more porous, with respect to national boundaries, and thereby subject to abuse by those out front of the political systems' capacity to keep pace with technology, as 'globalization' in the markets renders workers vulnerable in too many countries, while governments paradoxically, over-reach in their attempt to "protect" their citizens from terrorism.
Privacy, traditionally linked to inividual freedom and human rights, is a very abstract notion, especially when meta-data becomes the mine from which "intelligence" as defence is obtained. And of course, individual privacy is not considered by most citizens in "liberal democracies" where governments have traditionally accepted the legal principal that caution and oversight were required to 'invade' an individual's privacym for example, where criminal activity was suspected by law enforcement and a judge concurred, and a search warrant was issued.
It is not only what the U.S. and other governments are doing to "protect" their citizens, it is also the degree to which those governments go to educate their respective public's about the oversights that are embedded in their "intelligence surveillance" operations that matters.
At a time when trust in all instiutions, especially governments, is at an all-time low, (in Canada the secrecy of the Harper government would likely upstage the FBI, if we were to learn the full extent of their muzzle on information) governments in the U.S., U.K. Australia, New Zealand and Canada (the Five Eyes referred to in the Potter/Hepburn story) have to accept a higher standard of transparency and accountability given the history and tradition of all five of those countries to protect individual liberty and privacy.
Huxley's "Brave New World" where Big Brother is watching, is already here in terms of available technology for snooping on individuals...yet the protective shield that is needed for individuals to live their lives in some tranquillity without fear  of their own government either is not yet established or is already too late to provide the degree of protection that most would consider appropriate.
Abuses by law enforcement and by the military in liberal democracies are not only growing in frequency, but also in complexity. Why would a normal citizen not suspect that similar "government agencies" like those in national security would not also over-step in their exuberance to perform their assigned duties, and thereby cast a long shadow of suspicion on the extent to which national security would, on the ground, trump individual privacy and personal freedom?
We all know that those making the laws are in the dark about these matters to at least the same degree as their public, and therefore have to rely on their experts, like Professor Deibert. The difference between the U.S. and Canada, on this score, however, is that Deibert teaches at the University of Toronto and is not a full-time employee of the national security establishment of Canada. It is from those duly employed experts that the U.S. government will be seeking a securing input, and the presentation of such professional advice and guidance will, necessarily, be shifted in favour of the national security apparatus...there is no lobby inside the government for the ordinary people....that is why elections are coming to matter more now than in the past.
And it is also why ordinary people are no longer 'merely voters' who can be ignored for a government's term and then pandered to at election time. Ordinary people are the leaven that keeps the bread of the body public alive, and the only way that such leaven can ensure that its legitimate boundaries, including the trade-offs in the invasion of privacy for protection against domestic and foreign enemies,
is for an active and informed citizenry to be educated, nurtured and sustained by such public and private institutions as schools, both elementary and secondary, colleges and universities, a vibrant and courageous press and an even more vibrant and "edgy" internet.
While there are many abuses of the digital media, there are also increasing instances in which the digital media can and does serve as the canary in the coalmine, by warning of the real and potential government over-reach, as well as corporate well as digital providers' excessive greed and over-reach of a different  kind.
Eventually we can probably predict that those digital sources that are without credibility will atrophy through lack of support, and others will find readers in many corners they would previously never have penetrated...and our hope is that such legitimate citizen probings will inform those responsible for legislation that preserves a healthy balance between individual privacy and freedom and national security intelligence.

Canadians not safe from U.S. online surveillance, expert says

Canadians' digital fingerprints are every bit as exposed to the watchful eyes of Big American Brother as those of our stateside neighbours, according to one of Canada’s leading cyber-researchers.
By Mitch Potter and Michelle Shephard, Toronto Star, June 7, 2013

Think there’s a Canadian border between you and the U.S. government when it comes to online surveillance?
Think again, Canada. All your digital fingerprints are every bit as exposed to the watchful eyes of Big American Brother as those of our stateside neighbours — and even more vulnerable, according to one of Canada’s leading cyber-researchers.
At least 90 per cent of Canada’s digital activity, from Facebook to Foursquare to basic email and beyond, is routed through exchange points in the United States, says Ronald Deibert, director of University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.
The borderless nature of North America’s online architecture means the vast majority of Canadian metadata is filtered into the same U.S. National Security Agency surveillance systems exposed in blockbuster stories this week by The Guardian and The Washington Post.
“There is no border. The way telecommunication traffic is routed in North America, the fact of the matter is about 90 per cent of Canadian traffic — no one really knows the exact number — is routed through the United States,” Deibert told the Toronto Star.
“Internet exchange points are critical — this is where traffic is passed between companies — and we have only two Internet exchange points in Canada . . . As a consequence, even an email sent within the city of Toronto most likely would transit to Chicago before being routed back to Toronto.”
Along the way, your Canadian data is subsumed through “filters and checkpoints, shared with third parties, with law enforcement and of course intelligence agencies that operate in the shadows,” he said.
Those filters include the NSA’s previously undisclosed PRISM program, which operates with direct access to the systems of Google, Facebook, Apple and other U.S. Internet giants, according to top-secret documents obtained and published by The Guardian.
The major companies named in the document all denied or downplayed involvement in PRISM, saying customer data is not provided to the U.S. government without legally binding court orders.
President Barack Obama also moved to tamp down public concerns, calling the uproar “hype” and stressing that the surveillance programs do not target U.S. citizens. Obama acknowledged “modest encroachment’s on privacy” but added, “You can’t have 100 per cent security and then have 100 per cent privacy.”
But Obama’s assurances do not extend to Canadians, Deibert said, because they simply hold the wrong passports.
“Let’s not forget, Canadians are ‘foreign citizens’ by the American definition. So we’re fair game when it comes to eavesdropping, should they want to do so,” he said.
Deibert, also director of the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies, lays his concerns bare in his new book Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace. And for all his criticisms of the secretive American National Security Agency, he is even more concerned about its counterpart in Ottawa, the rapidly expanding Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).
Formerly a branch of Canada’s Department of Defence, CSEC now stands as its own federal agency, replete with a new $900-million headquarters under construction next door to CSIS, Canada’s intelligence agency.
“Oversight of CSEC is really thin, compared to even the oversight that takes place at the (U.S.) National Security Agency,” Deibert said. “There’s one retired judge with staff that issue an annual review — and in all the years they’ve been doing reviews, they’ve never once found a single problem with CSEC.”
But the NSA and CSEC have a “long-standing historical relationship,” said Deibert, and operate today as “essentially twinned agencies.”
The two agencies belong to what is widely known in national security circles as the “Five Eyes” — the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada — all of which, said Deibert, function in “conjunction and co-ordination with the National Security Agency.”
Some speculate that Five Eyes was created with the very purpose of evading domestic laws that prohibit the agencies from collecting communications on their own citizens.
That tight relationship was recently strained with the case of Canadian naval intelligence officer Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Delisle, who was convicted last year of selling Canadian intelligence secrets to Russia.
The Toronto Star contacted CSEC for comment Friday about its own metadata collection program, but received a boilerplate statement stressing that the agency is “prohibited by law from directing its activities at Canadians anywhere in the world or at any person in Canada” and “operates within all Canadian laws.”
“The Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC) cannot comment on its methods, operations and capabilities. To do so would undermine CSEC’s ability to carry out its mandate. It would also be inappropriate to comment on the activities or capabilities of our allies,” the statement said.
But Deibert argues that is simply not good enough, in light of this week’s revelations. “Canadians should know that we live in a borderless environment when it comes to North America,” he said.
The latest news about the NSA, Deibert says, will ultimately shine a much more intense light on how the Canadian agency interacts with Canada’s major service provides, from RIM to Rogers to Bell and beyond.
“The budget for CSEC has doubled since 9/11. And this has come at a time when the Canadian government is cutting back agencies,” he said.
“The key thing here is, Canadians should demand greater accountability. To be absolutely clear, we need defence and intelligence agencies . . . It’s not a question of that. It’s a question of basic checks and balances in a liberal democracy. It’s a question of preventing the abuse and concentration of power.
“And we’re losing sight of that in the headlong rush to secure cyberspace.”