Friday, February 28, 2014

Reflections on the news itself and how one thinker considers its failings

While serving as an "untrained" free-lance journalist, in a local television news department I recall one argument with the then news director over the "lead" I had put on a story about a possible tax hike by city hall, for the following year. I had said, "Council will meet on Wednesday evening to attempt to reduce what could be a 3% tax hike for local citizens" and the news director vehemently informed that that he wanted, "The city faces a 3% tax hike next year"....as his way of grabbing listeners, and making headlines.
I did not agree with him them and I do not agree with him today as I listen to and read all kinds of news reports that either distort or simplify their information for the purpose of "growing the business" of the news outlet. While there is and cannot be anything that can be called "objective" news reporting, merely by the fact that whoever is writing the story will select and arrange facts in a manner that discloses his/her viewpoint, with the new mountain range of information that we are capable of gathering and storing today, reporters and editors have an even more complex challenge that they did when the news director and I had that exchange.
Curating, editing, balancing, and educating their readers/listeners/viewers is a much more complex endeavour than telling them where the city council is in its deliberations over the tax rate for the following year, something that the news departments of every city considers important.
And, while it is somewhat facile and easy to report on a possible tax increase, we almost never read or hear about which members of a local government are seeming to ally with others and which general direction and ideology and preferences and traditions they are taking and preserving. Just as the daily stock numbers are constantly included in all "important" news casts, demonstrating more of the dependence of the news outlets on the financial and business sectors than the relative significance of those numbers for the viewing/listening/reading audience.
Of course, the nature of the arguments and the positions, collated and presented as a function of the city hall news reporter's job, would take a level of digging and interpretation and judgement and subtlety and sophistication that most news directors would consider "above" their average audience member's capacity.
Nevertheless, directing the story to an average twelve-year-old's intellect is never going to raise the standard for either the reporters or the audience.
It is another example of the patronizing attitude that plagues too many of our businesses and corporations and governments that the "people do not understand" just how complex the work of these organizations really is, and so the news departments have an obligation to "spoon feed" them as if they were still sitting in a grade six classroom in the local elementary school.
Alain de Botton, philosopher, essayist and documentary producer. Author of “The News: A User’s Manual.” Also author of “Art As Therapy,” “How To Think More About Sex,” “Religion For Atheists” and “A Week At the Airport.” (@alaindebotton), recently appeared as a guest on On Point with Tom Ashbrook, outlining his philospher's perception that we are overwhelmed with the amount of information and the seriousness with which it is presented, especially on the 'evening news' on national television programs, and the undernourishment that we feel as  students and consumers of the news.
While it sparked an interesting conversation, and exposed many holes in the news coverage , for example, in the lead-up to 9-11 and to the stock and financial crisis of 2008, both of which took the world by surprise, de Botton's book is one that all actively participating citizens would be well advised to read.
It is not a book merely for intellectuals, nor for journalism instructors in our colleges and universities although it would naturally be required reading for them, but it sheds a bright light on an industry whose roots have long ago been declared obsolete, and whose current practitioners are deeply and earnestly attempting to preserve them. We need more broadly trained and deeply thoughtful and intellectually gifted young men and women to take up the task of observing and telling the stories that are increasingly demanding a level of both insight and courage, as we watch more and more political and thought leaders find even more sophisticated ways to mask their full and true intentions....and serve their own interests at the expense of the public interest.
While there is also a need for deep and profound training and learning in many specialties, in order to be able to report on those files, there is also a need for those with general yet still deep and profound general learning and training to be able to connect the dots of the meaning of various stories with each other and present those connections in ways that stimulate public debate.
We are all attempting to "generate a healthy society" not merely expose some sensational isolated pieces of information, and most can probably agree with de Botton in that assessment of the role of the news departments and their directors, rather than holding rigidly and firmly to the dictum of "balance" so that reports of "genital mutilation" will require a defender and an opponent of that subject in order to preserve that holy grail, balance.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Will non-Muslims become the new "religious prisoners" of an Islamic caliphate?

For many months we have all watched the sometimes 'creep' and sometimes 'gallop' of the Islamic agenda to establish a caliphate. We have read reports of Al Qaeda affiliates infiltrating the rebel forces in Syria, the anti-government forces in Iraq, not to mention the Nigerian and Somalian and Sudan fronts in their radical and often violent ambition. While the bullets and the deaths and injuries are capturing the headlines, the on-the-ground "interface" between Muslims and "others" (Christians and Jews) known to Islam as the "people of the book" has received less coverage. And, of course, as the theme of the Islamic tsunami moves into a position in which Islam is the governing religion of the people in power, there have to be "rules" governing how the Islamic power structure will treat the people of the book.
A recent piece published on line in a respected and widely read blog, Syria Comment, hosted by Josh Landis (landis@ou.edu.) sheds some light on the potential faced by Christians and Jews who might have to live under an Islamic state. And the picture is not pretty, nor is it fundamentally acceptable to anyone who espouses anything that resembles personal freedom and a social compact that secures that freedom and preserves the separation of state matters from religious matters. Under the Islamic world view, these matters are one, and while there are only small signs of the future appearing in a few places, those signs are so compellingly abhorrent, and so out-of-sight and also out-of-mind, that one wonders if there is much hope of a co-ordinated response to protect the people of the book from Islamic "dominance" and the spectre of restrictive oppression based on what many consider is a respected interpretation of the Koran.
Those of us who have plodded through some of the writings of Karen Armstrong, a western apologist for Islam, might be more than a little troubled by the piece excerpted below that depicts a quite different picture from the hopeful and collaborative and openly receptive picture painted by Armstrong in her writings. As one who writes from the perspective that the major religions have much in common, Armstrong emboldens those who wish for a peaceful and collaborative world in which thought leaders and religious leaders concur in peaceful negotiations, collaborative pursuit of common goals, and a single deity, however abstract and however depicted in the 'holy books' and traditions. Her view supports all those "moderates" who seek accommodations between and among the major faith communities, based, one assumes, on a profound and authentic belief that any God worthy of the name would have the human community work out differences rather than take up arms, in their pursuit of their spiritual development. 
And anyone who thinks or believes that the Jews and Christians have figured out how they purport to address a potential caliphate that includes Rome and Canterbury and London, not to mention many other major urban centres, is likely out of touch with the naivety and the idealism and the good will that both Christians and Jews of good will bring to the potential encounter. After reading the excerpt below, pause briefly and ask yourself how the world can adjust to this new potential reality that is today so often portrayed as a bunch of young radicals whose fervour will peter out and leave the rest of the world 'beavering away' in endless negotiations in a culture that is and has been prevalent for centuries. If martyrs are considered the first wave of those bearing the flag of the future of Islam, and violence is the only arrow in their quiver, then we most likely have mis-read the long-term intent of this movement, this revolution and this cultural and religious tsunami.
In their attempt to carry out what they believe to be the Koran's directives, a sizeable segment of Islam is committed to the establishment of Islamic state(s) whenever and wherever they can succeed. And those of no specific faith, along with the people of the book, are about to wake up in jurisdictions controlled by Islamists, to a need for protection "from" Islam which, at least according to the observer writing in Syria Comment, carries both a price and a threat. And, while many of us live thousands of miles from the Middle East, we are not likely to go quietly into the dark night that is depicted for those known to Islam as ‘dhimmi’( a Jew or Christian living under the authority of an Islamic state) who will pay a ‘jizya’ (poll tax) and endure discrimination in return for protection from the state...
Read the excerpt and consider what living under such conditions would do to your current life...and what kind of co-ordinated and collaborative resistance might be feasible and justified.
From Syria Comment,  26 Feb 2014
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Traditionally, a ‘dhimmi’ in Islam is a Jew or Christian who agrees to live under the authority of an Islamic state, agreeing to pay a ‘jizya’ (poll tax) and enduring a number of discriminatory conditions in return for ‘protection’ from the state. The Qur’anic basis for this arrangement is 9:29. In practice of course, the dhimmi pact, far from being a model of historical multiculturalism and tolerance as hailed by Western Islamic apologists such as Karen Armstrong, is actually equivalent to Mafia racketeering, as failure to pay ‘jizya’, whose financial burdens often proved heavy historically, leads to a loss of ‘protection’ by the state.
For the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), which has the backing of broad elements of classical Islamic theology in this regard, such a development comes as no surprise, as the group’s predecessors- Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and al-Qa’ida in Iraq- similarly imposed jizya on Christians both in the Baghdad area (al-Dura neighborhood) and the north of the country. In Syria, the group has already imposed dhimmi terms in practice on Christians in Raqqa province, such as in Tel Abyad, where supposed violation of the dhimmi pact was the pretext for ISIS’ desecration of the Armenian church in the fall of last year.
One should also note that this pact has been imposed by ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and bears his signature as the amir al-mu’mineen (“Commander of the Faithful”- the traditional title of a Caliph, illustrating how ISIS is aiming to build the Caliphate and is projecting its leader as the future Caliph). It would thus indicate that Baghdadi is likely to be in Raqqa province at the moment.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ukraine's example of peaceful opposition is a bright light in a dark tunnel of tyranny

It is the quiet dignity and the surreal composure of the Ukrainian people that has taken over, following the massacre of some 81 of their comrades who were brutally killed under orders from someone in the former president Yanukovich's regime. And as the world watches, and as Canada sends a delegation to Kiev as observers, to speak with the 'people' in charge, and the EU waits for some signs of stability in a very fast moving and so-far peaceful situation, even Ukrainians who are already employed have been volunteering to supplement the police forces, in a period of transition and potential turbulence.
Meanwhile Yanukovich himself has fled, probably into the Crimea, taking refuge likely under Russian protection, where there are still some reports of a potential 'second theatre' for this revolution. He is wanted for crimes against humanity, given his alleged culpability, and certainly his narcissistic self-indulgence while he served as the leader of the Ukraine. Watching the eyes of the people of Kiev who walked peacefully through the ornate and sumptuous estate he had built for himself, replete with several expensive automobiles, we saw incredulity, amazement and even contempt for his abuse of power and the accompanying access to money.
This motion picture of a regime change is so different from those in the streets of Cairo and in Tunisia as to be almost sullied by any comparison. The people of the Ukraine are demonstrating to the rest of the world that they trust their own people, that they are fully aware of the options available to them in such proximity that they are seizing their own opportunities, even in the face of what has proven to be a very brutal regime.
Those hundreds of flowers laid silently on the street in Kiev, in honour and in memory of the Ukrainians who died from the bullets fired by Yanukovich's military and/or security forces, speak volumes, not only in the picture they paint lying there against the black asphalt, but in the silent procession of the people, in an almost sacramental manner, bending down and placing them gently on the hard, cold black street. Theirs was, after all, a demonstrably peaceful demonstration, albeit one that threatened the continuing presidency/puppet of Yanukovich, and those who died have become martyrs to the changes the people are demanding.
Now, one of the more significant and pressing questions is whether or not the people leading the transitional government, supported by allies from various countries including Canada and the United States, can and will be able to negotiate with an apparently so-far intransigent and deeply offended Putin who is continuing to reject out of hand the notion that Ukraine can be simultaneously engaged in the development of democratic institutions, the rule of law and access to both jobs and a secure future, and also continue a cultural and linguistic and historic relationship with Russia.
If Putin uses the example of Karzai in Kabul, who has rejected out of hand the request to sign the security agreement with the United States, leaving his country without U.S. forces on the ground, following the termination of their official deployment, at the end of this year ( a move that will certainly provide an open door to the Taliban to return to power in that country), then the conflict in the Ukraine could become another protracted blemish on Russia and the United States as well as the European Union.
Is it not time for people like Putin and Assad, and the Ayatollah in Iran, and Kim Jung-un in North Korea to wake up to the fact that history has passed dictatorships by, that, by definition, dictators are relics, paleolithic monsters still attempting to preserve a system of governance that has long ago been proven dysfunctional? And is it also not time for leaders in both Beijing and Moscow to moderate their support for rogue states and their brutal dictatorships, and stop justifying their shipments of guns and military equipment propping up these dictators, while at the same time, foreclosing on the kind of information and education and open media that people living in healthy nation states require.
Power that resides in a single individual, or a small cabal, that manipulates all of the instruments of the state, including the economy, the press, the education system, the health care system, and the patronage that flows into the hands of so many people to "buy" their loyalty to the corrupt system which has contaminated their hands, and their lives, in a kind of secret duplicity, is, by definition, abusing itself. It has turned in upon itself, and can do nothing except implode inevitably, leaving a mess that normally takes decades to unravel and replace.
Once entrenched, political systems are extremely hard to excise. Normally a political/surgical excision is messy, often without precise precedent and leaves scars and spilled blood, in conditions far from those pristine hygienic kind in the operating rooms of the world's hospitals. Politics, itself, is often, and too often in our view, a brutal instrument, that has extreme resistance to subtlety and to nuance and to delicate manoeuvres, given the desperate need for recognition and rewards from the people on which the process depends.
However, as the president of Google pointed out this week, the new technology, because it links everyone to instruments that circumvent any official information system, and thereby undermines all pretense to assurances that "all is well" when everyone knows that all is not well, may have made dictatorships obsolete. Let us all hope that history proves his observation valid and reliable, and that those few archaic vestiges of omnipotence in a single man, (and it has been men throughout history!) will become the subjects of archeologists and political scientists who are preparing their dissertations and not the residents of some "pleasure dome" built with the money that could have and should have provided education and health care and peace and security for the people.
Ukraine, we are watching, often in awe, at your attempt to shed tyranny, and hopeful that we can join hands with you in your march into a brighter and more stable and more democratic future, with or without Russia as one of your partners.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Arizona bill permitting business operators to refuse service to LGBT community requires veto from Governor

The law, passed by the Arizona state legislature, now sitting on the desk of the Governor of that state for signature, would permit business operators to refuse to serve customers from the LGBT community on religious ground. Arguing that their religious beliefs prevent them from serving customers in their business, the  bill pits the religious/faith community squarely up in opposition to the civil rights community and its supporters.
Proponents of the law tell Tom Ashbrook's On Point at NPR that the law speaks to the demand for respect from the conservative community after initiatives that saw gays approved for membership in the Boy Scouts movement, and in the American military, not to mention the growing support for gay marriages across the United States. Currently, a case before the US courts sees a gay couple suing a photographer whom they had asked to photograph their wedding, only to have the "business" request refused, because the photographer did not agree with gay marriage, and refused to provide the requested service.
Of course, the civil libertarians are all over this proposed bill coming from the Arizona legislature. Both Arizona Senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, have both urged the governor to veto the legislation, fearing the impact on both the people and the state itself from full implementation. Some members of the Arizona legislature who initially supported the measure, have withdrawn their support, seeing the error of their ways, and arguing that the bill was hastily drafted and needs more careful scrutiny. The Governor herself has dubbed the bill, "controversial"....and pledged to hear both sides prior to making a final decision.
(Just yesterday the President of Uganda signed a piece of legislation from the legislature in that country making engaging in homosexual acts a criminal offense, subject, eventually to life imprisonment, if caught a second time. Today, tabloids in that country have printed the names of known homosexuals in their publication, for the whole country to read.)
As one caller to the On Point radio program earlier today put it in her rhetorical question: "Are yellow stars next?" (She reminded the listeners and the host and guests that it was the Nazis under Hitler who required Jews to paint yellow stars on their foreheads, as a sign of their religion, their ethnicity and their required complicity with the Third Reich. "How are they going to identify members of the LGBT community, in order to enforce this bill if and when it is signed into law?" came the second question from the same listener.
The list of groups of people who have been ostracized in various forms, manners and methods contains blacks, women, and now, in some jurisdictions, the gay community, whose support has been growing, yet apparently not on an even and equal basis in all US jurisdictions. The U.S. president has vowed to examine and consider the implications of the Ugandan law on US relations with that country.
At its root, this bill is fostered, nurtured, encouraged and advocated for by the religious right. It is their claim to their righteous defence of the Christian faith, and it has implications for both the churches and for the jurisdictions that move in this direction. (And several other states are also considering similar legislation, in their push-back against what they see as a wave of immorality that is sweeping across the United States.) Churches that support this legislation, (and there are clearly many Christian pastors who reject the bill!) will undoubtedly attract people of a similar mind-set, who see refuge from religious leaders in their pure protection of their faith. Other churches that denounce the bill will experience an appreciation and a respect from the LGBT community, and from those who support the separation of business and religion.
As one civil rights lawyer put it, my right to religious freedom extends as far as your nose, and no further. And if I bake and sell cakes, by selling that cake to a specific purchaser, I relinquish any control or endorsement of what activity surrounds the eating of that cake, (for example, at a gay wedding celebration!)
We strongly support all those who oppose this legislation; we endorse the call from both Senators McCain and Flake to the Governor to veto the bill; we also encourage all civil liberties groups to strongly fund-raise and present both public and legal opposition to this law and all other imitators of this law, in order to forestall any tide that will inevitably result in the targeting of the LGBT community, in the same week that Jason Collins signs his first NBA contract with the Brooklyn Nets and announces that he will wear number 98, in honour of Matthew Shepherd, a gay young man then a student at the University of Wyoming,, who was brutally attacked and left to die on a Wyoming farm fence late one night in 1998. Most considered the murder based on the hatred of gays, while more recent research points to drugs at the centre of the death.
If one has to chose between what is commonly referred to as religious freedom, in order to practice one's faith, and the freedom "from" religion that would prevent the imposition of one's religion on another, then, for us, it is a no-brainer...we opt for the latter, the freedom "from" religion, as a sine qua non for the preservation of a civil society, that includes the liberty to believe whatever one wishes.


A culture of neglect and narcissistic gratification poisoning our shared future

As one who has railed against the growing disparity in income equality, I am beginning to wonder if that gap is more than a sign that money has trumped all other human acquisitions (not achievements!). Are we perhaps not looking at the evidence of a continuing disparity in education, learning, and consequently in world views?
As we watch the 'west' and Putin compete for the Ukraine with money, and the political campaigns in all countries with free elections devolve into spending pits of mammoth proportions, and university grads flock to Wall Street for big bucks in law and finance, and Zukerberg et all flaunt their new-found affluence, and Facebook purchases WhatsApp for $19 Billion, and the numbers of millionaires grows as an index of the success of the economy, and the numbers living at or below the poverty level grow too quickly to be absorbed into the budgets of many towns, provinces and nations...is there not something "wrong with this picture"?....
There is little doubt that the economic crisis of 2008-9 disclosed a level of greed, narcissism and personal ambition that placed the world's economic 'system' and the people in all countries in a precarious position. We all know that the American culture is focused almost exclusively on money as the currency not only of business transactions, but of identity. One's "fiscal capacity" (to borrow a phrase that public discourse uses to measure a nation's, or a state or provinces', or even a municipalities "stability") plays by far the largest role in determining one's social status, one's acceptability into a social system, one's access into the worlds in which people of all professional categories work, live and play. It regulates the area of town in which one purchases a home, the dealer from whom one acquires a vehicle, the shoppes from which one acquires ones wardrobe, and even the boutiques from which one acquires one's accessories, not to mention the regions of the world one visits. And, of course, while we have all read stories about how "the clothes do not make the man" (or the woman), we are all susceptible to the glitz and the glamour and the accompanying lifestyle of the "rich and famous" as a former television show demonstrated.
One adolescent co-ed, in a news piece about the impact of high tech devices on adolescent attitudes said last evening on a national newscast, "Who does not want to be famous?"
We have collectively generated a culture in which our children have "bought in" (notice the profound depth of the penetration of the transactional metaphor into so many aspects of our lives) to the picture of success that is so dramatically and resplendently displayed by Nick Carraway in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. And the implications of our collective, willful and somewhat somnambulant slide into the picture we have all "sold" to those who follow in our footsteps are currently, and will for decades if not centuries, plague us all, as the fruits of our myopic, narcissistic and terminal hubris.
We run like lemmings from any thought, and especially from any "talk," of our vulnerability, our weaknesses, our limitations and our lack of compassion, while at the same time we rush headlong into the best shoppes, into the best restaurants, into the most prestigious jewellery stores, into the most exclusive country and golf clubs, and join the credit cards with the best travel provisions
as if such a massive movement signals our "success" as a culture. And when leaders like Yanukovich take the public funds for his own personal palace and estate, and that opulence is captured on live television for the world to see, following the resplendent and applauded $52 billion spread over a small area on the coast of the Black Sea, for the Sochi Olympics, into which we have all permitted and even celebrated the entry of billionaire athletes from both the NHL and the NBA (in the summer games), we are unwilling to call ourselves out on our insatiable appetite for emulation of those who "have" as millions, if not billions of people (the numbers grow exponentially daily) who will only glimpse such affluence and opulence through their television and computer screens.
Our advertising agencies dig into our fears of being excluded, of not fitting in, of not achieving on a monetary scale, of impeding our path to the "brass ring" (or is it now the "gold ring"?) and, as sycophants to their corporate masters, generate our poetry in the service of the collective monster whose claws are grabbing us by the throat and by the pocketbook, by the perpetuated angst of "failure" and by the inculcated contempt for the other, especially if that other has not "pulled him/herself up to achieve what the most wealthy hold out as the "good life".
We can see that viscious grasp of a phoney "ideal" wrapped in such mellifluous and seductive phrases as "personal values"....just driving past a local church on the weekend, we noticed a large sign that read, "Jesus was pierced long before it was cool!" as if to say to anyone passing, 'we are hip and we are cool and Jesus is one of us'....in another attempt to use advertising as an instrument of prosletyzing.
And when the churches are deep into the slime of the swamp of corporatism and the drive for both money and butts in the pews, what hope is there for the culture that has already slid into the sewer of our own perfect image.
And then, when it comes to political power, once again, we rely on benchmarks of how the money is allocated exclusively, as if it has become the holy grail, the litmus test of trust and reliability and good governance. As the sham of the most recent government initiative in Ontario, whereby restaurants will more than twenty outlets in the province will have to post "caloric counts" on all their menu selections, demonstrates, comparing a soft drink's calories to a smoothies' calories will not prove which is a more "healthy" drink...the smoothie will have more calories but will be much more nourishing and healthy. When there is only a single number involved in our attempt to address a social issue like childhood obesity, we will naturally fail in our attempt to address it. Similarly, when we posit the acquisition of money as our defining goal for our society, through our schools, through our family kitchen table conversations, through our television and film presentations (even though we occasionally ridicule ourselves as in movies like Wall Street and The Lion on Wall Street) we are still promoting a rich lifestyle that even outstanding actors like Liam Neeson succumb to, in signing contracts for merely action flicks, in order to pursue a million-dollar career, when compared to the kind of role of which he is really capable.
We all know that the majority of the members of the U.S. Congress have become millionaires, leaving them completely cut off from the ordinary lives of the people for whom they are responsible and for whom they write and pass legislation (when and if that ever happens). And as the rich lifestyle is promulgated throughout the world, simplifying life and success and our mutually shared responsibilities for each other, and for the systems that we all requires just to sustain a physical life, never mind achieving riches, more and more people will find illicit paths, short-cuts if you like, to the big bank account, increasing our need for crime detection, for social safety nets, for an already bulging legal system, for decreased collaboration among and between nations and provinces and states, as each little pocket of power seeks to enhance its own position by protecting itself from invasion (political and intellectual, if not military and subversive in the criminal sense) in order to enhance the lifestyle of those currently holding power.
And we all, as both sycophants and little magnets drawn to the large and very powerful magnet of personal wealth, contribute our votes and our public debates and our dollars to a perpetuation of a political system that is as eroded and dangerous as the roads in all of our cities are filled with potholes from the decades of patching that are now giving way to potential sinkholes.
How long will it be before even developed and so-called stable economies succumb to the ravages of neglect of ordinary and obvious needs, neglect based on a collectively if silent 'contract' that has bound us all to instant gratification and disdain both for our less fortunate others and for the future of the planet?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Authentic Relationships are not and connot be purchasd with big cheques...at any level

With Thomas Bach's plea, in his speech closing the 22nd Olympiad in Sochi yesterday, asking the world to follow the example of the athletes especially where there is conflict, in the direction of peace, dignity and respect, it struck me that both the United States and Russia are part of an old world order. Yes, Russia's presentation of the winter Olympics was clearly an attempt to present a "new Russia" complete with all the techno-wizardry of contemporary 'de mille' productions linked intimately and creatively to a history of centuries of artistic accomplishment in dance, theatre, music and stagecraft. And, to be sure, even the many venues were created in a spirit of freedom combined with cutting edge design, architecture with a dash of wizardry. Where else, for example, would one find a hockey arena whose roof blazed with lights, that signalled both the competitors playing and the immediate score, for all hockey games in the tournament?
However, now that the magic is complete, and the athletes are returning home, the world is watching a tug-of-war, in the Ukraine, between the Russia of Putin's ambitions for glory and the EU's example of a different and more collaborative, if somewhat awkward and bumpy ambitions for democracy and for limits to nationalism in favour of a more negotiable and less combative, and perhaps even more complex political relationships. The Kremlin can write cheques for immediate "bribes" to induce Ukrainians to move closer to their circle of influence, just as the United States has for too long attempted to use cash to buy influence around the world (clearly not without pouring billions back if and when needed, for example through the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II).
Is it just possible, certainly not guaranteed, that both Russia and the United States are reaching, or perhaps have reached the limit of the power of money as a means to secure friends, allies and influence among the world community?
Pouring military support into Syria continues to "buy" Putin a measure of influence over Assad. And the U.S., by refusing to pour their resources into the conflict, is being pounded by both Republicans and some world leaders, for their not being able to be trusted to come to the aid of the rebels in that country. And while there is a cunning and opportunistic aspect to the Putin "beneficience" to Assad, in the short run, the world can and does see it for its blatant and sullied "self-interest" purchase.
Gatsby attempted to purchase his friends in East Egg, as an very un-nuanced attempt to woo Daisy. The world's fixation with the cost of the Olympics demonstrates that money continues to have a degree of power  to make some things happen. And let's not demonize money, in the manner that the prohibition movement demonized rum, as a moral imperative to cleanse the "filthy lucre" from the planet. However, complex issues require more than money and missiles for their resolution.
And the world community needs leaders who are prepared to dig deep into their imaginative arsenal for more subtle and sophisticated and less brutal and less immediate methods of nurturing and growing and sustaining relationships.
Even in Africa, where "foreign aid" is now being questioned as a form of patronizing insult to the African people, money is not the simple answer to helping that continent and the many countries within to achieve self-reliance and increased independence and autonomy. China seems to be in the lead on that continent in providing infrastructure in exchange for natural resources, without leaving a footprint of insulting patronizing.
As fledgling countries enhance the education of their people, and come to see their own opportunities for leadership, they will increasingly want and need guidance, support and mutually beneficial relationships that are not based exclusively on money, or on a kind of "parenting" that merely throws a crumb of cash at a complex and perhaps long-standing issue or problem. They will also not so easily as in the past, see themselves as "in the ditch" of the human community, needing nothing more than a heroic and self-interested cheque in order to grow and nurture and sustain what will be also complex and nuanced relationships with countries whose histories stretch back centuries.
So while the US continues to occupy an significant chair at the table of world leaders, and must "talk turkey" to Putin over several outstanding issues, like the Ukraine, Iran, and Syria, it is not only their fat cheque books that gives them power, nor it is any longer their large arsenal of military materiel. Nor is it the previously desperate and dependent need for fossil fuel that undergirds American hegemony, or the fa├žade of influence. In fact, the notion of the commodification of all relationships, as if foreign policy were merely an extension of the kind of corporate profit-driven sine qua non of General Motors, that is being seriously questioned here.
And regardless of how much money was poured into the pursuit of medals in Sochi by the various countries, including Canada, and while money does indeed buy coaching and training facilities and transportation and food for that training, as well as supplemental income for aspiring Olympians, it is their commitment to the Olympic ideals that were celebrated for those seventeen days in Sochi, not the money that "bought" those medals.
And while people like Kevin O'Leary like to believe that the market is omnipotent, and that dollars drive the world, his view is so myopic as to be its own poison. And as soon as American, Russian and the diplomats from other countries like India and China and Brazil come to the realization that their value cannot be completely reckoned by the size of their GDP or the balance of trade, or their unemployment rates, nor the number of start-ups or patents in any given year, the world will reach a different level of consciousness that excellence and healthy relationships are not "bought" but rather negotiated through complex and often conflicted pathways.
And searching for power and influence through the acquisition and spreading of money is both hollow and dissatisfying for both the acquirer and the potential recipient. Even those in extreme poverty would gladly accept an opportunity both to learn and to contribute, rather than a hand-out, even if that hand-out comes voluntarily and freely. Their dignity and their capacity to contribute are essential not only to their growing autonomy but also to the body politic's need to know how to receive.
Power, buttressed by money, is not acquired nor merited, exclusively through the acquisition of more money and the ability to write cheques. There is more to relationships, even at the diplomatic level, than cheques and guns. And, just as the United States is witnessing a change in the approach of many colleges and universities to open their doors to those whose lives are scarred by the ravages of poverty and scarcity, so to we can only hope that both Russia and the United States will see the application of that principle to their engagements around the world, as they seek to untangle centuries of division, hatred, contempt and deception among and between tribes, nations and regions.
Let's not turn the story of the Ukraine into a competition between two big bank accounts, as appears to be happening with the next round of US elections, with billionaires supporting both parties throwing their cheques at their agendas.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Let's expand the concept of "public interest" from campaign finance to an objective vetting of all political candidates, irrespective of political ideology

There are so many reports about the fiscal crisis, based on the assumption that the primary purpose of the political class is to maintain unemployment rates below 7%, and debt to GDP ratios that are tolerable, given the history of economic comparisons, and the ideology of the various "schools" of economic theory. And then there is the "balance of trade" equation, and the DOW and the NASDAQ and the TSX and the various stock exchange indices that take the temperature of the so-called financial body of health of a country, and when combined with a similar and matching set of numbers from other developed countries, comprise a daily "read" on the state of global economic health for the purpose of generating "investor confidence" in the markets and increased economic stability.
And, just as the doctors in their offices consult the latest findings in the Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine, and the AMA Journal, on the most recently discerned evidence of what works to stabilize the health of their patients, including new technologies and new pharmaceutical products as well as new procedures with both, so too is the political class expected to "stay current" on the latest information in order to continue to practice their profession. Unfortunately, rather than "credit hours" of study, research and colloqium engagement that applies to the medical profession in order to maintain their license to practice, the political class "puts in time" doing whatever it is that the headlines and their constitutents, especially those with deep pockets, and waits for the next election or the next scandal to determine their professional fate.
And, so, without our objective and systematic attempt to provide a score on the performance of the governments of various nations, provinces and states, we have developed the dreaded "opinion poll" that, like the daily stock reports, purports to tell us which political issue is "hot" and which has receded to the back burner, which politician is "rising" and who is "falling" in the eyes of the public.
And there is a thriving industry training and deploying its agents to take the pulse of a given population, for governments, for corporations, for the military and for sociologists whose task includes the planning of various activities from the highly profit-centric to those that are more philanthropic, or even centred on national security. Supporting both of these thriving sectors, opinion gathering, and medical and technological research, is a media whose task it is to disseminate the information they receive from the public relations offices in the various segments of these "sectors" in order that we too can form some modicum of a gestalt on the culture in which we live and play and make our living, if we are so privileged to have a "living wage".
Except anecdotally, we have not produced measurements of an objective nature for the level of confidence, and strength of character and compassion and  balance of our leaders, especially those we put into positions of judgement and decision-making, on our behalf. We watch their "television sound bites" and note the amount of gray hair that has increased over the years, and we listen to their facial and rhetorical expressions as a window on their ability to maintain our trust and our confidence, in a world in which the levels of confidence and trust in every person seems to be dropping by the hour.
And while there is solid evidence of the dangers and the threats we all face, including new super-bugs that are resistant to the current crop of antibiotics, and the new deep internet whose capacities we are yet to discover and to untap, and the next threat that might jump out at us when we least expect it, for example when thousands of us are just finishing our latest marathon, and temptations for every public servant to abuse the expense accounts or to tell one audience one promise and another audience a contradictory commitment in the hope that no 'journalist-researcher' will uncover the duplicity...and the list of threats is literally endless.
At the same time, we are discerning a new kind of communication in which millions if not billions of people are engaged, that also undermines personal, and thereby public confidence, because it permits a level of visciousness, even contempt and libel, without having to face those we have chosen as the latest target of our venom and without having even to take responsibility for that personal venom. Who has the funds to launch a legal battle to call out this level of erosion of the public trust and the public confidence that we have innocently and collectively placed in those whose lives are focused both on profit and the next "techie" device that can make them rich and the rest of us even more dependent on their corporate empire and the culture that supports it.
Not so long ago, we used to have debates and discussions about the relative importance of the individual versus the group, in our political discourse and our political ideological debates. Putting one ahead of the other signalled our preference and our personal world view. It was also a debate in which all people of all economic levels and intellectual status and professional credentials could and did participate on a relatively level playing field. Today, that lens has been replaced by the juxtaposition of those who have with those who have not, as if our personal wealth was equal to and determinative of our "value" to the society. And, as part of the list of inevitable results of the new framing of the political discourse, the status and the confidence and the relative importance of those who "have not" has dropped almost off the scale of consideration, as if our political class has become beholden to those whose cheques made and make their election feasible and therefore their loyalty has been earned, in spite of the glaring fact that they have been "bought" and "paid for" by their puppeteers.
No person who is beholden to another, even if it is to a group of "others" can or does have adequate confidence to merit trust. And no person willing to enter into the game of public leadership can afford the price of being purchased, in a world in which bringing truth to power has become a hallmark and a sine qua non of achieving balance and equilibrium through collaboration, rather than dominance and increasing hegemony through more spending and more military and all the other  forms of hard power. We are, it is generally agreed, competitive in nature, and that competition is displayed on so many stages, to grab profits, votes, trophies and 'bragging rights' for whatever group seeks to earn public trust and confidence. And while there is good reason to celebrate that competitive spirit at Sochi, or in other Olympic venues, and in school gyms and small town ice pads, it loses its relevance and significance when the public interest is being both served and sought.
The degree to which a political leader superimposes his/her personal goals and ambitions ahead of those of the people he serves is an index of the degree to which that individual has failed in the execution of his/her responsibilities to those people. And those goals involve not only the platform on which s/he campaigned, but also the methods deployed in the execution of those planks in that platform. And we need some objective measuring device(s), not merely anecdotal stories that grab headlines, to ascertain the degree to which one is a servant, not a slave but a servant, to the public interest. And in order to achieve such  measurements, outside the scope of the next election, and provided at least monthly by research that is funded by public funds, we need to deploy independent scholars as we do "independent" reseachers in the scientific community. Think tanks, for the most part, seek and find financial support from their ideological soul-mates, and can be counted on for their framing of social and political issues in ways that support their ideological persuasion. Needed, of course, but not adequate for this purpose.
Transparency and accountability are mere words without consistent, objective and verifiable research on the public scale of both values and methods of leadership, for all elected, (and who would oppose even appointed executives) in order to better ascertain the level of trust and confidence of which a potential leader is worthy, and the level of confidence that would be "inspired" in the people as part of the legacy of such a leader.
While individuals can and will continue to inspire others to pursue activities in which both have a deep and lasting interest and commitment, the public interest is so abstract and so pervasive and so vulnerable to the latest "selling" and marketing seductions, as to be vulnerable to the take-over by the most cunning and the least honest and authentic of those who seek to serve the public interest.
And when it is reported that both sides of the environmental protection debate will throw millions, if not billions, of private funds into that debate in the upcoming mid-term elections in the U.S., we are watching the de-facto take-over of that debate by those who can afford to "pay less tax" on their caverns of cash, by "creating jobs" and "generating public debate" in favour of their personal agenda.
And when the process is taken over by those who "have" we know that those who "have not" will become even more "pawns" in a chess-game over which they have no influence.
Public debates are, unfortunately, too often framed in a binary manner, as if to walk and chew gum were incompatible and mutually exclusive, and a third option is considered a sell-out by both sides who consider their position moderate, but to an objective observer, it could legitimately be considered extreme. And democracy, different from the court room, requires more than two options, and more than a Manichean world view, if it is to operate and grow organically, and serve the public interest, even at the expense of "not favouring" those with deep and filled pockets.
We need more people who can count on being seen for their nuanced willingness and capacity to discern the complexities of the many and varied crises facing the world, because they are willing to risk the public disclosure of that nuanced view, and because we have ways to demonstrate that nuanced and complex world view that are objective, verifiable and consistent. And along with public financing of election campaigns, we need public funds dedicated to the vetting of all public figures, irrespective of their political ideology.  And we need to develop curricular opportunities in our young people that will engender their confidence and their willing participation in the public arena, for the merit of their values and their intellectual contributions and their world view, not for their capacity to "survive" some kind of phony and fatuous black and white competition that includes the sacrifice of their good name and reputation. And the public "interest" requires both mechanisms and their adequate and long-term public commitment through both legislation and public funding to sustain them.
If the political class were a "self-regulating profession" we would demand higher standards from their own "professional college" that could and would be publicly documented, and not leave such important matters to the muck-raking of the latest tabloid seeking sales and advertising.



Friday, February 21, 2014

Time managemment may lie at heart of resolution to Ukraine struggles, not to mention political "ego"

If Ukraine is, indeed, divided in its identity, the west being formerly a part of Poland and the east being attached to Russia historically, then it's current struggles for an identity, being pulled in two directions simultaneously, is, while unique, comparable to that of other countries, whose identity his two historic poles.
Canada, for example, continues to struggle with the tension between French and English, both cultures however, contributing significantly, yet very differently, to our still evolving national identity.
It is the manner in which this struggle is now being played out that is so troublesome. Protestors who seek the overthrow of their president, Yanukovich, are, according to many reports not likely to achieve their goal, and even if they did, the two polarities of the country would still be there.
As one observer put it, there is an important international aspect to this struggle as well as an important domestic aspect. On the international front, Putin, determined to secure his own legacy, envisions an Asiatic-empire that includes the Ukraine, while the west seeks to see democratic reforms, the rule of law and the individual expression of the people, along with increased trade. Those forces too are unlikely to go away.
On the domestic front, people of course want jobs, a good education, decent and accessible health care and freedom from oppression by the state.
One of the few variables on which both of these themes will play out is that of time. And while Russia, being a dictatorship, can and does move quickly and nimbly, to write cheques in the billions, (even those requiring a change in the investment fund from which they are taken, because the Ukraine would not otherwise qualify). On the other hand, the European Union, being a collection of states, albeit with some more developed democratic institutions, moves much more slowly. Trade agreements that remain unsigned, emerge from the back rooms of the EU rarely and after much negotiation, and are not proferred easily or quickly.
Immediacy, on the other hand, is the order of the day, if the killings are to be stopped. And according to most reports, live ammunition is now being used by both sides in the dispute.
While Kiev burns, Putin preens himself in Sochi, on the international stage, taking time occasionally to place a phone call to Yanukovich to offer "assistance" in the form of Russian advisors, to find a way out of the current debacle. If that assistance can and will be compared to the assistance Putin is offering to Assad in Syria, who is also facing demands from protestors for his overthrow, then the world needs to be prepared for another proxy civil war, with the west supporting the protestors in the Ukraine and Russia supporting, once again, their puppet dictator, Yanukovich.
It would seem to this very "outside" observer, that the US was duped into an agreement over the disposal and removal of Assad's chemical weapons in Syria, and the duping was accomplished by Putin and Lavrov, with the complicity of an over-eager and overly idealistic Kerry and the Obama administration which did not want to put the US into another conflict in the Middle East, following more than a decade of war-weariness on both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Will the "west" including both the EU and the US, be duped again by another scheme of "instant gratification" over the current struggles in Kiev, in order to garner positive global headlines, while at the same time selling out on the Ukrainian people?
Time, the length of time for an immediate response, as compared with a much more deliberate and thoughtful and long-lasting response many be one of the issues that stymies those at the "table" who could make a difference in the short-term. However, in the long term, states, just like people, have to learn to take a much longer view of the process of achieving their national interests.
And, while Putin plays a "flush" poker hand, given his triumph in Sochi, and to a lesser extent in Syria, and Iran (given his support of the Iranian regime that seeks to develop nuclear power), the US struggles to find a different voice from that of the military, in its search to re-invent itself on the international stage.
And Kiev, while providing another chapter in this development, requires a cessation to the violence, as well as a stabilizing of the Ukraine's economy, and the establishment of more democratic institutions. The first goal is immediate and needs a very different diplomatic approach from that required to achieve the second and third goals. And both the people of the US and its current government are very hungry for some evidence that "she" has not lost her political and diplomatic clout, especially in the face of the recent "trickery" from Putin and Assad on chemical weapons.
And in the public, we tend to have a very short memory, along with busy lives, that keeps some of the stories that once were headlines, out of the front of our minds, although they continue to burn holes in the lives of millions of refugees and in the budgets of countries like Turkey and Jordan that have taken in hundreds of thousands.
Let's not have to witness a similar debacle, with similar rhetoric, in the resolution to the Ukraine's civil unrest, and let's find negotiated terms under which the long-term resolution of the people's demands can and will be met, so that resorting to live bullets and whatever follows, does not become a pattern disclosing our inability, unwillingness and incapacity to resolve serious diplomatic tensions, that have admittedly national and international implications, as does each case.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Words versus horse whips!

words versus whips!!
It is not rocket science to condemn the Cossacks for their public display of brutality against the Pussy Riot, a punk rock group committed to public criticism of Putin and what they consider unacceptable conditions in Russia. However, it is another of the many horrendous examples of how physical power, hard power cannot and will not silence the words of honest, authentic and resistant protest, especially when conditions demand that protest.
The Cossacks were only acting "on orders" from some superior officer, also reporting to another superior officer, also reporting to another and eventually to Putin himself. They were not carrying horse whips because they thought they might encounter belligerent horses. They were carrying horse whips because they were ordered to carry them, and to use them, if and when this group, or some other group, decided to give voice to their criticisms of Putin and the Russian regime.
The patriarchy, especially the patriarchy that holds fast to the maxim that if and when it meets opposition of any kind, it will use whatever means necessary and available to stamp out that criticism. We are watching a similar abuse of power in Kiev, also under Russian guidance and possibly even their orders. We are also watching a similar abuse of power in Caracas Venezuela with public protests against the current president. We have been watching the Egyptian army disperse their opposition voices for months with the use of tear gas, stun-guns, water canons and even, sadly, as in Kiev, live ammunition.
People who are protesting in Kiev are not, as the Ukrainian leader wants us to believe, "terrorists"...
People who are protesting in Syria are not, as Assad would have us believe, "terrorists" although terrorists are taking advantage of the conflict to inflict as much damage as they can, in order to establish "instability" the very incubator for their terror to succeed in setting up an Islamic state.
People in Venezuela who are protesting are not "terrorists" and the fact that those in power are using the word "terrorist" to describe their opposition demonstrates just how much the Al Qaeda terrorists and their knock-offs have imbedded themselves into the psyche of the world community.
People who have been protesting in Cairo are not terrorists, as the army leaders would have us believe.
And what is more tragic is that there seems to be a common trend among those in power, in their attempt to show strength and a refusal to be intimidated by all terrorists. It is that they resort to a kind of medieval, un-enlightened and default position of fear, neurosis and its overcompensation.
The pursuit of control, by all agents of power and authority, in schools, in family kitchens and dining rooms, in factory floors, in corporate offices and board rooms, and especially in churches, is an exercise that is totally counter-intuitive to the kind of liberated mind/body/spirit that evokes and generates healthy relationships, learning, productivity and worship respectively. It demonstrates a kind of insecurity that "things will spiral out of control" unless and until we stop the "chaos"....
In fact, it is a shared believe and perception among those in authority and responsibility that they are "in charge" and that they must exercise all options of control and repression when they are faced with opposition. It is, after all, their own positions that are being threatened, their own wielding of power in the first place that is coming under both scrutiny and critical examination and even being undermined.
All people who seek power and authority need to learn the principle of legitimacy:
When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it  matters-- first and foremost--how they behave. This is called the "principle of legitimacy," and legitimacy is based on three things. First of all, the people who are asked to obey authority have to feel like they have a voice--that if they speak up, they will be heard. Second, the law has to be predictable. There has to be a reasonable expectation that the rules tomorrow are going to be roughly the same as the rules today. And third, the authority has to be fair. It can't treat one group differently from another. (Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, Little Brown and Company, 2013, p 207-8)
We have seen, and will continue to see, precisely the opposite results from those results sought by the people in power in Kiev, and Cairo and Caracas and wherever protests are taking the bricks out of the city square to make missiles to throw at the police and the army who have been charged with keeping "control". Repression demonstrates the fear of those in authority, and incubates more protests, not fewer. Repression generates even more stridency, not less. And this lesson cannot be lost on parents, teachers, principals and those responsible for the formation of our young people.
Anyone who has been the victim or the recipient of repression, especially through the violent imposition of that repression, knows that when repressed we throw things, we shout louder, we become more convicted of the righteousness of our perceptions that power is being abused against us, for reasons that are not justified.
Young women in body suits, singing songs of protest, are not a threat to Putin, unless and until he turns them into his victims, at which point the world sees Putin administering a "black-eye" to himself, to Russia and to the Sochi Olympics, purportedly his crowning achievement. And, just perhaps, given the ironies of so many of today's political encounters, Putin's heavy-handed response to the Pussy Riot, (he would likely say the Cossacks were being restrained because they did not arrest the young women) generates a degree of reflection that we do not normally witness from people in power when they are confronted with the truth of their mismanagement and their deceptions and their seductions for the purpose of maintaining the power they have had invested in them, for a brief period, through cronyism or through rigged elections, or through votes in which the voters have been bribed with the public purse that has been turned into the campaign coffers of those already in power.
It is no accident that incumbents are returned to office in something like 90% of the elections. After all they have the bully pulpit from which to trumpet their "accomplishments" and the perks of power that present them behind podiums of officialdom, and the limousines and the serfs whose only task is to make their "masters" look good. Their opponents have none of those supporting resources.
However, increasingly, people in power need to curb their fears and their narcissism and their addiction to the power they wield and surrender much of that fear in favour of a kind of relaxed openness and a kind of soft strength that reduces, if not eliminates, their resort to the hard power of repressive control.
Models of how power is effectively used can be witnessed in every hospital nursery, in every infants bedroom, when the nurses and the mothers and fathers are completely trusting their own instincts to feed, clean and nurture those infants, whose only needs are to be warm and fed, and to enter into the relationship in a spirit of hope and joy. It is those in power, and especially those whose need for power and control has taken over the situation, who teach us deeply and profoundly, that their need for control will always trump our need for legitimacy and freedom.
Far from linking the protestors to the Hitler regime, it is the people in power who are in danger of losing the modicum of "respect for the office" that their actions have and continue to erode. And when respect for the office has dissipated, anyone holding the office becomes little more than a sylph or a ghost of the respect and the honour once encapsulated in the office, and peace order and good government are no longer even available. They have been compromised by the very people who were placed in power to protect that peace, order and good government.
And the more we have to witness the march of political insecurity, balanced on both ends of an unstable teeter-totter, with excessive power on one end, and chasms of fear on the other, the more protests we will witness, if not have to join, in order to restore a level of respect and respectability in our political offices, that only the people can restore. And they will, but only after they have endured too many incidents of horse whips attempting to silence the unsilenceable, words of truth and words of public criticism.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

US: sign on to ICC; Security Council: drop veto on crimes against humanity

The United Nations has observers in so many countries, attempting to bring to light the many and various abuses of power by regimes that have inflicted death and pain and various forms of suffering including starvation and refugee status. These countries include, Congo, Sudan, Syria and even North Korea. However, with "umbrella" protection coming from states like Russia ( for Syria) and China (for North Korea) even statements and initiatives that would see the leaders of these countries, and others, brought before the International Criminal Court will be thwarted when it is time to vote in the Security Council to actually bring these leaders to their knees.
Just as in local and national politics, increasingly those with the big cheque books carry the day in funding electoral campaigns, so in the international arena, those with the biggest footprints, meaning those whose voice, including their Security Council veto, seal the fate of millions of victims to the criminal activities of their puppet leaders.
The world can see and read about the various forms of abuse, including deliberate imprisonment, torture, starvation and even in the case of Syria, bombing with chemical weapons, without being able to bring these political terrorists to heel in the very forums that were designed to prevent another holocaust-like event. It is, however, becoming increasingly evident that the United Nations charter that permits the veto power to the five original members of the Security Council has to be amended to prevent bringing leaders like Assad and Kim Jong-un before a panel of judges for a trial that would cost millions but could possibly bring their regimes and the horrendous pain and suffering they are inflicting on their own people to an end. Probably, if there were no veto, in the cases of human rights crimes and injustices that could be verified, a majority of four of the five members would be able to serve as a decision-making  body to bring offending leaders at least to trial. It is the veto that is holding millions of people hostage to a decision-making body that is impotent by its own design.
And we all know that the veto is most likely the one reason that the Security Council was able to be created in the first place. Surrendering sovereignty, in any form, is something the big boys never like to do, and never to will a full commitment. Hence, we note, once again, that the United States has not itself signed on to the ICC, fearing that its own citizens could become before the court in the event that behaviour while on duty in an international conflict zone crossed the international legal line of crimes against humanity.
War is both consistent with and colluding with and even inducing crimes against humanity. It could even be argued that war itself is a "crime against humanity"....and for many could result in bringing any leader who inflicted a war that was without provocation on another country to the ICC (and that would include both George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, the US leaders responsible for the war on Iraq and on Afghanistan.)
The more one reads about criminal use of power by those in positions of both authority and responsibility, including on the television screens in Kiev Ukraine (with 25 peaceful demonstrators killed in yesterday's burning of their tents that have occupied the town square for months, at the hands of the government, allegedly advised by Russian operatives, under Putin's thumb), and by the North Korean leader and by Assad, the more one wishes that the United Nations could provide the kind of sanctions that would bring about a universal signatory list to the ICC that would include the US, and that would permit the Security Council to serve in a manner similar to a grand jury, viewing the evidence, and bringing offending "officialdom" to trial before the world's legal jurists.

 By Peter Walker, the Telegraph, February 18, 2014
North Korea's leadership is committing systematic and appalling human rights abuses against its own citizens on a scale unparalleled in the modern world, crimes against humanity with strong resemblances to those committed by the Nazis, a United Nations inquiry has concluded.
The UN's commission on human rights in North Korea, which gathered evidence for almost a year, including often harrowing testimony at public hearings worldwide, said there was compelling evidence of torture, execution and arbitrary imprisonment, deliberate starvation and an almost complete lack of free thought and belief.
The chair of the three-strong panel set up by the UN commissioner on human rights has personally written to North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, to warn that he could face trial at the international criminal court (ICC) for his personal culpability as head of state and leader of the military.
"The commission wishes to draw your attention that it will therefore recommend that the United Nations refer the situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea [the formal name for North Korea] to the international criminal court to render accountable all those, including possibly yourself, who may be responsible for the crimes against humanity," Michael Kirby, an Australian retired judge, wrote to Kim.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A weekend with grandchildren in Montreal...joining the lifeline of human joy and growth

Spending 24 hours with a three-year-old grand-daughter and a year-old grandson this weekend, brought back memories of their mother's childhood, and the kinds of feelings that can only be generated when little people are engaged with and responding to our adult presence.
And, if nothing else became eminently clear, what did emerge was proof once again that Rousseau was on to something very important, that we are not born evil, that we are taught evil and that whatever religious impulses to "correct" our evil we impose, they are mis-guided, mis-directed and unfounded.
Sure there were minor episodes when the one-year-old wanted the same toy his sister was playing with, and she obliged by offering him an alternative, just as she has so often seen her mother do. And there were also moments when the little girl became a little frustrated with the attention paid to his needs, which were no more significant, if at a different level, than hers.
However, singing and dancing to records both children had become familiar with, knew how to start, and to control the volume and how to switch the channel demonstrated a kind of freedom and a level of abandon in those moments that most adult lives have lost, surrendered or perhaps discarded in favour of much more "mature" pursuits.
Yet are they?
Curiosity, some risk-taking on the more physical level by the little boy, yet also on a social an intellectual level by the little girl who "organized" the adults in her game of "red-dog, blue-dog" or rec-room soccer in which she played goal, intermittently interrupted by pairs dance competition from Sochi on the television screen and a quiet, "I really like her blue dress" from the little girl....and smiles, smiles and more smiles from both children when their faces met ours and we shared moments of both engagement and fun....and the children were the "litmus" test of what was fun....if and when they were enjoying themselves, that was also fun for us.
And along with the fun came the reflection of what actually constitutes fun, joy and just how simple and yet how impacting it really is.
Any thoughts or conversations about "making money" or about "jobs and labour" in order to make money were so incongruous to the moments of "community with the children" although all moments that engaged in their questions, their observations and their facial expressions were synchronous with their growth and the purposes of the adults in their room.
Mini-lectures on "how to behave" seemed so adult-driven, as compared with the incidental and almost accidental interventions "on the fly" that became integral to the experience of the children. While that may be a little vague, it was clear, for example, that as things happened, and were reacted to by both children and adults, the children observed any "how's" the adults wished to present in almost imperceptible ways, as compared with the heaviness and the boredom of the "lecture" method, leaving one to wonder just how many times our generation had lectured to our children, and just how wasteful our energy and time was, in that lame exercise.
It was an experience just to absorb the feelings of these young people, bright, active, engaged and for the most part extremely happy and engaging and to reflect on the passing of the generations, both the great-grandparents of these children, and even their parents...and their place in the family lineage.
And that experience demonstrated, and proved, as if more proof were necessary, that we are all indeed connected not only by a genetic line, and a family history line, and all of the various means of technology, but more importantly by an emotional and spiritual lineage that points us all in the direction of full achievement and flowering of our best talents, interests and capabilities. And if and when that connection is nurtured and fostered, and not imposed by either or both the needs of a parent or a state, but in the course of the natural engagements and encounters, observed and reflected upon by those whose eyes and ears are attuned to how these little flowers bloom and need to bloom, then who knows the heights to which each of these little people can fly...and who would not wish to be there to see them bounce off their respective clouds in the ecstasy that can only come from such flights.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

On leaving the film, Winter's Tale...

One grasps the headlines from the Google news site, desperate for some glimmer of actions by leaders in many fields, that would move the world closer to some kind of security, tolerance, respect and dignity for all. And one is left glimpsing the ideas that the U.S. and China are at least talking about ways to tackle global warming and climate change, that the U.S. is considering enhanced sanctions against Syrian dictator Assad, that Putin's Russia is struggling to "romance" the Ukraine back into the Russian 'bed' while the west is also courting her emergence as the latest western debutante.
 One finds, in Canada, an internal split in the Conservative party, the governing party, over whether to deliver on a campaign promise of income splitting, a measure that would inordinately favour the most wealthy Canadians, the targeted funding base of that political party.
In Sochi, Canadian Luge officials argue that the temperature of the ice for their sport changed between the time the Russians competed and the Canadian sliders road down the track, at a much slower speed because of the softness of the ice. They have lodged an official complaint which is being investigated by the Olympic committee.
One learns that in the United States, the current figures for adolescent suicide are considered an "epidemic" by those professionals serving in that field: one in five have either attempted or committed suicide. One also learns that heroine has become the drug of choice among many upper and middle class white people who have become addicted to pain-killers like Oxycontin, the price of each pill now running between $30 and $40, as compared with a packet of heroine at between $6 and $10 for the same high. Naturally, in a culture/climate/economy like the current malaise, these figures are linked to the failed war on drugs, to the loss of employment, to the hopelessness of many whose lives are increasingly  deprived of the kind of human contact that comes from conversation about real thoughts and real feelings through an dramatic tilt toward social media. I listened yesterday to one early forties professional tell me that he has 49 people who "like" his photos on photoshop, "but I do not know any of those people and none of them knows me!"
And, after sitting in a movie theatre last night, and watching Winter's Tale, one finds a kindred spirit in Mark Helprin, the author of the novel on which the movie is based. He once wrote these words while defending another piece of his work:
Despite its lack of mechanical perfections, humanity, as stumbling and awkward as it is, is far superior to the machine. It always has been and always will be, and this conviction must never be surrendered. But surrender these days is incremental, seems painless, and comes so quietly that warnings are drowned in silence." Helprin, Mark (21 September 2009). "In defense of the book: a reply to the critics of Digital Barbarism". Retrieved April 7, 2010. (both the quote and its source are from Wikipedia, Retrieved, February 15, 2014)
And while conservative and liberals can and do agree on his insight, we humans nevertheless stumble awkwardly in our many and varied and halting pursuits of some kind of coherence and meaning, especially when our most glaring comparison currently is with machines that seem to be grabbing up many of the previously owned "functions" of the human being and doing them more quickly and more accurately than we ever did or could.
We say one thing, while simultaneously doing its opposite. We learn new information that is directly relevant and applicable to our personal health and well-being, while at the same time acting as if we have never heard of the new information, appearing to disregard our own health and our responsibility for its maintenance.
We champion the rich, and aspire to achieve its status, knowing all the while that such achievement is widely reported and reputed to be hollow in the extreme. We hear echoes of ideals of equality linked to the dignity of each person, while we celebrate the financial "success" of the very few. We select some for political leadership, only to watch their "clay feet" come rising from the ashes of their own ambition, knowing that, in a similar circumstance we might likely fall just as dramatically on our own sword, without skipping a beat in our condemnation of the "other's fall".
We point poisonous fingers of hate at the failings of others, as if we were immune from similar disasters; and when we find ourselves in a "sticky-wicket" we believe that we "have made our beds and have to get ourselves out on our own"....the kind of monstrous over-simplification that comes from extremely toxic parenting.
We attempt through legislation to plug the loopholes in regulation that permit credit derivatives and credit swaps, never before designed and implemented until our brightest mathematicians on Wall Street proved the dangers of their elite education, linked to their creative imaginations and their uber-ambition and greed.
We read this morning, something posted by the Princeton economist, Paul Krugman, that neither surprises nor causes us to question the veracity of his information:
In 2012, the top 40 hedge fund managers and traders were paid a combined $16.7 billion, equivalent to the wages of 400,000 ordinary workers. (Paul Krugman, "Inequality, Dignity and Freedom," The New York Times, February 13, 2014)
And we are prompted to ask ourselves, "Have we not learned anything from the debacle that nearly sent all of us over the cliff in 2008, or are we still worshipping at the altar of wealth and power and insouciance that apparently accompanied so many hedge-fund managers to New York in the last decade.
And we play out our little often futile attempts to absorb so much data, and to make some sense out of it, in conversations with friends and colleagues who, too, are overwhelmed by the speed of change, the flow of new information, the adjustment that the new technologies require in our swim against the tide of new appliances with new and faster capabilities, separating those whose fingers played on these new keypads from their cribs from those of us whose introduction to them came after six decades of living without them.
And we know it is not surprising that relief from our confusion and discombobulation and ennui, even in a supernatural escape film like Winter's Tale, can bring a new and rejuvenated appreciation of a full moon, as we leave the theatre on a wintery Valentine's Friday night, complete with a Ray Conniff melody on the Escape channel on XM radio on the car's stereo system. It can also bring renewed hope in the capacity of the human mind and spirit to create such an experience and to reflect on the larger and more significant and more engaging questions of what is good and how does evil enter our consciousness, staining the virgin snows of a mythical upstate New York estate with the blood of its own demonic possession, and its militaristic obeisance to the dreaded Lucifer.
Shades of Milton's Paradise Lost, of the darkness of Hades in Greek mythology, of the winged horses and heroic rescues of both history and myth and of the lost miracles of parted waters and bountiful unexpected harvests ring in one's head while munching a salad and sandwich after the movie.
And, in the midst of all of our collective angst, our personal aloneness, our family's dysfunction, our church's abuses, our schools emptiness and our workplace vacuums, we are nevertheless highly and intimately connected in some glorious and mythical tapestry that continues to self-generate, in both its beauty and its ugliness, as it helps us to focus on the really important and sustaining relationships in which we are fully naked, fully vulnerable and fully accepted and loved. Happy Valentine's Day, with thanks and humility to Helprin and Crowe and Smith and Ferrell and Marie Saint, and Jessica Brown Findlay.
Whether the critics gave the movie a five-star rating or not is of little consequence to this member of its audience. It stirred many reflections, and will linger for some time as a catalyst for new reflections.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Sugar, the new enemy...or is it our falling in love with her?

More and more evidence is emerging about the dangers to public health of sugar, as our consumption of the highly seductive substance grows, both directly and indirectly because of its inclusion in so many of our processed foods. We have all heard about the ban on 16 ounce soda drinks by the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, then hailed as another example of the "nanny state" taking over, by those on the right, who subscribe to a small government ideology (or is it an theology?). Nevertheless, exponential rises in health care costs, not to mention the loss of mobility in the physical sense of that word and the accompanying loss of self-respect and self-esteem that is attached to obesity, along with absenteeism, loss of productivity and the many other associated "costs" including rising rates of type 2 diabetes all point to the single culprit, sugar.
In a world where the spending of dollars has taken top priority over the saving of lives, even if it is for a mis-directed motive to save money, any effort by public officials, local governments, school boards, and of course, the corporations that profit from our carefully nurtured appetite for sugar, to lower our consumption of the substance will go a long way towards enhancing the level of public health in our towns and cities. Such an effort, however, will be both long and hard, and will inevitably evoke the loud and strong and heavily fortified lobby voices of the sugar industry, similar to the tobacco industry's protracted and deceitful campaign to shine a spotlight on all the other factors that cause lung cancer, in order to take that light off their own products.
The World Health Organisation is set to recommend a cut in the amount of sugar in our diets from 22 teaspoons per day to almost half that. But its director-general, Margaret Chan, has warned that, while it might be on the back foot at last, the sugar industry remains a formidable adversary, determined to safeguard its market position.
Recently, UK food campaigners have complained that they’re being shunned by ministers who are more than willing to take meetings with representatives from the food industry. "It is not just Big Tobacco any more," Chan said last year. "Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation and protect themselves by using the same tactics. They include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt." (From The man who tried to warn us about sugar by Julia Llewellyn Smith, The Daily Telegraph, from The Province website, February 13, 2014)
What we have, once again, is another 'table' set for another political fight between the forces who depend on sugar for the manufacture, distribution and sale of their products (all of whom will point to the many and varied causes of so many illnesses that will be attributed to over-consumption of sugar) against those public forces like the WHO, and political figures like Bloomberg, and any others with the courage and the strength and the tenacity and the iron will to push back against the sugar lobby.
And, in the middle of that "food fight" will be the Tea Party shouting about the dangers of big government's attempt to take over the purview of parents, families and all other supporting casts that put the sugar bowl on the table, as a matter of both "good taste" and family responsibility.
So billions of public dollars will, once again, be needed to fight the legal battles, to counter the false claims, to educate the public on the dangers of sugar, to encourage the corporations that produce sugar-laden foods to cut the percentage of sugar in their products, and even potentially to regulate those percentages, as a matter of public health, (not to mention the argument of reducing health care costs that are crippling all government budgets in the western world). 
The very fact that a book written in 1972, Pure White and Deadly, by John Yudkin, was out of print, and that its author was denigrated by the scientific community for his prophetic work, (given that the scientific community was focused on the role of fat not sugar in the rising rates of heart disease) and a ground-breaking lecture called Sugar: the Bitter Truth by Robert Lustig, professor of paediatric endocrinology at the University of California, in which Lustig hailed Yudkin’s work as "prophetic" brought the issue back to the public's attention just recently, points to the strength of the sugar lobby, in collusion with the scientific community, not to mention the public's falling in love with sugar in the meantime.
We are all facing new information about ourselves, about our own complicity in the personal and public issues of our times, and about the complex of forces that are arrayed against healthy personal lifestyles, not to mention also strongly opposed to healthy public/governmental budgets while they are also the strongest voices condemning public overspending on such legislation as the Affordable Care Act in the United States. Protecting their corporate financial supporters may well be unravelling not only the lives of millions of otherwise healthy people, their own very constituents, while at the same time unravelling the national budgets. Such personal narcissism and power gives those financial backers uber-power in a world in which the dissemination of information, the facts as we are learning and re-learning them, in spite of decades of denial, obfuscation and counter-factual caompaigns, has grown more feasible technically, and at the same time the public confidence in the public institutions responsible for such "education" has fallen.
So collectively we face a complex and serious gordion knot: we are learning and re-learning about the dangers of a substance like sugar, at a time when we are already deeply dependent on its "sweet" taste, in so many facets of our diets, when our level of public consciousness and confidence is nearly numb through both over-stimulation and the resulting boredom and tuning out, and when our collective responsibility is eroding as we expect more and more from the people we elect to "protect" us from national security threats (would sugar not be a national security threat?) and as we trash all the responsible sources of our information as self-serving, especially those in the public domain.
So our receptivity to and seduction by sugar equals or surpasses our denial of the truth telling of our scientists and our politicians, while our deepening budget crisis grows with each double-double and each martini.
I guess that Pogo was right: We have indeed met the enemy, and he is us!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

News is NOT the new Literature....and never will become!!

 “Literature,” Trilling wrote, “is the human activity that takes the fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty.” Henry James, Austen, Coleridge, and Shakespeare (“King Lear” was the pinnacle of Trilling’s qualities), not to mention modernists from Proust to Kafka, from Woolf to Celine: their books are sanctuaries of anti-closure and infinite perspective, of right and wrong mashed together and dissolved. (By Lee Siegel, Is the News Replacing Literature? from The New Yorker blog, February 13, 2014)
Someone once said that psychiatrists would wisely refer their patients, following treatment, to their priests, rabbis, or imams, the spiritual mentors of their patients.
One has to wonder, today, not if the news is replacing literature, but if, following psychiatric treatment and medication, those patients would not be wisely, professionally and pragmatically referred to the classics of literature, if Trilling's encompassing circumscription has any validity, as we believe it certainly does.
"The fullest and most precise account of variousness, possibility, complexity and difficulty" goes as far as the mind/heart/spirit can grasp into the world opposite to the one in which we live, where single-minded purpose, the pursuit of power/money/greed, has so reduced the human search for its opposite, that we are left with both a heroine addiction and a suicide fixation, especially among the adolescent population. Did you know that 1 in 5 United States adolescents has tried or succeeded in taking his/her own life? Did you know that heroine addiction is so prevalent in Vermont that the Governor devoted his entire State of the State address to the problem and its treatment.
We are over-regulated, over-organized and over-programmed to become not only "our personal best" but "the  best" in the whole world, without flaws, faults, doubts or even confusions. We are living in a period when, with greed in dominance (not merely the ascendancy) any who are the least bit less than overwhelmed by the collective motive to become wealthy, and even question their "difference" from that norm, preferring a more reflective and a more imaginative and a more community-based life, are stampeded to their emotional and spiritual unconscious, without a notice being extended by the growing stampede.
Power seekers, like their power-broker mentors, despise those who prefer to sing, or to draw, or to dance, or to write poetry unless and until that art produces enough money for them to notice, and then it suddenly becomes the object of their investment portfolios, for "bragging rights" that might accompany its acquisition.
All my life, I have been struck, in the face, by the observations, "You are reading more into what is happening than is intended" and "you are far too sensitive" and "you are much too intense for me" from a conventional culture seeking, for the most part,  either to humour me or to modify and change my character, to better fit their picture of how those speakers would like me to be.
Corporatism has virtually erased from the cultural landscape the eccentric, the hobo, the iconoclast and the stories of the aunt or the uncle whose life was so embarrassing that it was told only in the most secret of circumstances. Today, even those stories are verbotten, even in private. And, at the same time, as has been observed by many others, "we photoshop our lives" on the internet, painting pictures of how wonderful we are, how magnificent are our accomplishments, and how endearing our personalities really are...according to the most valid authority, ME!" That is precisely why I have taken down both my twitter account and my facebook page. And I will not ressurrect either of them!
Literature introduces us to people we would otherwise never meet, for example the old man and young boy in Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea.  In it we enter a December-May companionship in the Caribbean fishing village, following many days and a single, devoured marlin catch, that most of us will never have the opportunity to experience.
In Othello, we encounter a man deeply and unreservedly in love, who discovers to his horror, through the nefarious plotting of his un-promoted and vindictive colleague, Iago, that the love of his life is cheating on him. Jealousy, one of the ingredients of all of our lives, nevertheless, has more meaning, depth and emotional impact after our encounter with the black African and his scheming villain, exposed finally by his own spouse. In fact, it is for many a touchstone against which we compare other experiences of jealousy, and not only the "green monster's" emergence in love triangles.
Failing to accommodate the inordinate ambition of at least two geriatric adults who wished to become leaders in small churches, and rejecting those ambitions in favour of less ambitious and more humble and more spiritually committed and disciplined others, produced in both instances, high and vindictive and remorseless retribution, choreographed almost entirely by those rejected neo-Iago's of the twenty-first century.
To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus Finch stands tall among the great litigators of American literature, a man whose instincts and compassion and wisdom feed all those who have the opportunity to sit with him on a porch for an afternoon, and just listen to his gravel larynx spill volumes of manuscripts that would fell the most ambitious doctoral dissertation in any competitive arena dedicated to the common sense and the humanity of the human being.
Margaret Laurence's Hagar Shipley, in A Stone Angel, stubborn, proud, defiant, a strangely comingled stew of social justice, parental defiance and haughty indifference refuses a glass of water in her hospital bed at ninety-one, taking it herself, as a signal that she is not dead yet, in spite of her deteriorating condition, only a decade later than the day she began to smoke because she was so bored.
These are people who walk with us everyday, through the laneways of our walks and our drives, through the corridors of our office buildings and our mall hallways, and into the doctors' and dentists' and lawyers' offices, and sit on our shoulders listening to and smiling at our pomposity, our fastidiousness, our feckless ambitions never to be fully realized without their full support. They are part of our lives, as we can never be a part of theirs. And for them we are and remain so grateful to their creators, their partners in the theatre of their imaginations, as we inherit their estates, without a passing glance to the tax man, for their gifts are free, life-long, and undying, demonstrating unequivocally the generosity of spirit of their author-writers.
We not only pay homage to their writers but also to them for their wisdom, their courage, their insights and their engrossing and enrapturing quiet time as we meandered our way through the pages of their triumphs, tragedies, hopes and frustrations on our own journey through our's.